The first time you hear “Give Life Back to Music," the opening track from Daft Punk’s newest album, Random Access Memories, you can immediately tell that their latest musical journey is unlike anything we’ve previously heard from the French electronic duo. With the exception of 2010’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack, the Robots, as they are endearingly called, have not released a new pop album since Human After All in 2005. That album, sporting now-classics like “Robot Rock” and “Technologic” (of iPod advertisement fame), catapulted Daft Punk into the American spotlight. Due to the eight-year span though, discovering Daft Punk has been a retrospective experience for most listeners.
Then something unexpected happened. A fifteen-second spot featuring a funky guitar riff and flashing Daft Punk logo appeared in an ad break during Saturday Night Live in April, and seemingly long-forgotten fans remerged from their disco-less slumbers with eager ears. A few weeks later, producing legends Pharrell Williams and Niles Rodgers were featured in a surprise video alongside the Robots at Coachella and the world was introduced to “Get Lucky." The song reached number one on iTunes upon formal release and Daft Punk mania exploded.
The first thing that catches your ears’ attention on Random Access Memories is the addition of live instruments, and that has been the most controversial aspect of the album. It’s definitely funkier than usual, falling into a genre somewhere between disco and pop. The instrumentals and occasional orchestration add a depth to Daft Punk’s repertoire, but it isn’t for everyone. I can only imagine a neon-clad lover of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” with a horrified expression asking, “Is that… a snare drum?” Well yes, it is a snare drum or a piano or a guitar. The guitar playing in particular is a product of the genius of Rodgers, famous for his work with acts like Chic, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna and on and on. “Get Lucky” is a testament to his hit-making magic.
Still, many listeners, be they fans or the on-and-off type, may have qualms with the new sound. While the guitar riffs may not be so alien to fans of Discovery’s “Something About Us," the recurring orchestration feels foreign, maybe even invasive. The juxtaposition of live instruments against synthesizers and computerized vocals is not ideal for a bar or house party, unlike the oft played hits that people associate with Daft Punk. It makes sense. When they left us with Human After All, Daft Punk seemingly solidified their distinctly futuristic sound, so it’s use of old genres, motifs and instruments will surely be a disappointment for some.
With the fantastic line up of collaborators that helped work on the album, Random Access Memories is a marvel on its own that Daft Punk should be commended for. While those searching for a dance heavy pop frenzy may not appreciate the input of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear or singer-songwriter Paul Williams, the album is an elegant combination of the computerized funk that made Daft Punk the famous robot rockers we know and love, but with an injection of experimental nostalgia. The Paul Williams track in particular, “Touch," swirls a full orchestra, honky-tonk piano and synthesizers around Williams’s hauntingly melodic voice, generating a song that sounds like a welcome acid trip down a musical memory lane.
In a way, that’s what the whole album is: a look at music’s past and as always with Daft Punk, its future. Random Access Memories may not be the masterpiece fans were long waiting for, but it is a work of art. It is reminiscent of albums of the past, ones you listen to all the way through and experience. Despite the inevitable outcry from some listeners, one thing is for sure: this album has opened the door for Daft Punk to express themselves in new ways and that they are far from finished their interstellar robot odyssey.
In three words: Sexy. Interesting. Funky.
Tracks to look out for: “Within," “Get Lucky," “Instant Crush”, “Touch”