We Listened to Random Access Memories

Is the new Daft Punk record the ultimate internet album?

daftpunk01

Kevin: Nick, I think we have to talk about the new Daft Punk album. We might be the two most qualified people in the world to talk about it, having listened to their live album, Alive 2007, almost exclusively throughout college.

I don’t remember being this excited for an album ever, but at the same time, I don’t think there has ever been an album as well hyped as Random Access Memories. After months of obscure teasers and samples, an entire hour’s worth of new Daft Punk music is almost overwhelming. (Part of me wonders if I would’ve been just as happy if Daft Punk released the album in 30-second chunks over the course of 40 years.)

So: what are your first impressions of Random Access Memories?

Nick: Kevin, you’re right. Random Access Memories generated online buzz about as efficiently as anything I can remember. And the album itself also takes advantage of the internet in a uniquely interesting way. I’m imagining listening to something like this ten years ago, with its huge web of collaborators, influences, and references, and finding it somewhat baffling. I’m sure there are people who are big Pharrell fans who also understand Todd Williams’s significance in the house music scene, but I’m not one of them. Without the ability to easily read up on all these people and listen to their music, Random Access Memories probably would have just sounded disjointed to me.

But since YouTube exists, Monday actually turned into one of the most fun days of music listening in my life. I blasted the album all day non-stop with its Wikipedia entry opened behind it. Instead of being confused why some old guy was talking over the first two minutes of “Giorgio by Moroder,” I learned that Giorgio Moroder is actually the dude who’s speaking, and then I pulled up some of his amazing work on the Midnight Express soundtrack. Not only did this teach me about some awesome old-school electronic music, but it gave me a whole new perspective on the Daft Punk track (seriously, listen to the two of them back-to-back). This stuff happened over and over as the album played on, and I had an absolute blast (it also explained, though did not necessarily excuse, why “Touch” exists). I expect this is pretty much the outcome Daft Punk wanted, and I can’t argue with it.

So, what do you think of all the collaborations? Are Daft Punk and Animal Collective really two great tastes that go great together?

daftpunk02

Kevin: The track with Panda Bear, “Doin’ It Right,” definitely isn’t one of the collaborations that sticks out. Just after a few listens, the stand out for me is definitely “Instant Crush” with the Strokes’s Julian Casablancas, and it actually illustrates pretty well what works about these collaborations overall.

Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have a knack for beats and melody, but their instrumentation can be a little bland, sometimes tiresome even (see: “Robot Rock”). Casablancas is almost the opposite, best known for the noodly dueling guitars that have driven his solo album and the last two Strokes records. Those guitar riffs cleverly manifest themselves as synyth runs on the chorus of “Instant Crush,” and there’s a very Strokes-y guitar solo in the middle of the song.

The true hero collaborator of the record though is Niles Rodgers, whose funk/rock/disco guitar colors the entire album aesthetically in a throwback ’70s vibe. (You probably know more about Rodgers than me, from your wiki’ing.) But as much as Random Access Memories is an homage to disco, is it a dance record? I read an interview that with this album, Daft Punk wanted to do what they’ve always done but with live instrumentation. Does this feel like old Daft Punk to you with new tricks, or an entirely new direction?

Nick: So, I generally tend not to put much stock in what artists say about their own work because so often it’s just not helpful in terms of critical analysis. De Homem-Christo and Bangalter especially seem untrustworthy since they go to such theatrical lengths to create the public image of Daft Punk. The statement you mention, then, is kind of hilarious at first blush because Random Access Memories feels like such a self-conscious stylistic departure for the group. There’s a moment in the track I mentioned before, “Giorgio by Moroder,” where Moroder says, in the context of his music, “There was no preconception of what to do.” Then the beat drops out and a soaring violin swoops in — a sound that’s never appeared in the Daft Punk canon before. When I first heard it, it felt so heavy handed, like, “HAY GUYZ WERE NOT ELECTRIC MUSICZ N E MOAR KTHXBYE.”

But as I’ve listened more, I don’t think that’s quite what they’re saying. I queued up a bit of Discovery today, which I think has the most in common with Random Access Memories of their earlier work. Both feature a wide stylistic range and lots of traditional pop vocal performances. And in light of these new songs, what struck me most about Discovery is how heavily their older music relies on a rigid electronic drum beat. Now, Daft Punk made electronic dance music, so this isn’t exactly a revelation, but when I went back to Random Access Memories, I realized how much new space they created by removing that beat. They can still use a steady rhythm to reproduce the delicious groove of their older material, as in “Get Lucky,” but they can also do things that feel nothing like their past, like the album’s chaotic closer, “Contact.”

You asked me two things — is this a dance record and does it feel like old Daft Punk? I think it feels like what would happen if Daft Punk made a record that wasn’t dance music. Lots of the same elements are still here — the repetition, the vocoder, the funk — but their entire sound has transformed in the absence of the dance beat.

We’ve talked a lot about the mechanics of the record so far, but is it, y’know, good? The novelty and excitement are definitely propelling me through the first ten listens, but how do you think it will fair by play count 100?

daftpunk03

Kevin: I’m glad you brought up Discovery, because that’s the only other Daft Punk album that felt like an album. But Random Access Memories might be their best. Like you said, they’ve taken all of their familiar elements and done something sort of extraordinary with them: in the absence of beat, there is rhythm.

But to answer your question: will this album last? I can see this record enduring more than other Daft Punk albums (which are largely awful). Is it a great album? I’m unsure of that. Because on one hand, it’s not a consistent album. But its drone-y repetition makes it a great album to listen to at work, much like the beloved new Justin Timberlake album.

Even though it’s an album that is largely a throwback to the ’70s, it’s very modern, seemingly made for the age of people who sit on computers all day and listen to Spotify.

Do you think it’s a work album?

Nick: That’s a good question, and the answer actually says a lot about what makes this album special. I’m sure you can back me up on this because we’ve both been listening to nothing else at our jobs for the past two days: Random Access Memories is a fantastic work album. Daft Punk records tend to be because they’re full of positive energy and loops that don’t challenge your brain. If you want to listen to Random Access Memories this way, it totally lets you. “Fragments of Time,” for example, is one of those songs that will make you shake your shoulders a little bit while you stare at an Excel workbook.

But there’s another side of Memories that’s new for Daft Punk: the album rewards you if you pay careful attention to it. Take “Motherboard,” one of the two tracks that only De Homem-Christo and Bangalter received a writing credit for. It’s a soft, moody song with peppy drums, crystalline synths, and subtle strings. It’s basically the quintessential fade-into-the-background-as-you-read song. But if you listen closely, there’s a lot to discover. The beat is oddly staggered, the suite of instruments is interestingly diverse, and the sounds layer over each other in complex and sophisticated ways. And this is all happening on a track that’s almost filler.

No matter how much I love “Around the World” (note: A LOT), I could never just sit and think about what it’s doing for seven minutes. But If (and god willing, when) Daft Punk tours again, I feel like I could appreciate the music on Random Access Memories just as much in a cramped, atmospheric indie venue as I could if it was blasting out of a neon polyhedron at a rave on the moon.

Not that I would turn down the latter, of course.