Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
Written by Mr. Harold Zo
I have to confess that I stole this manuscript off of Alexius’ desk. I told him that there was a wasp behind his back. He had just been at some allergy seminar for cats, and was paranoid about insects of all kinds. This I knew, and used to great effect. He turned his back and I snatched this right up, rushing out of there before he could pounce. I confess I may have slammed the door on his paws. I do not regret this, because only an aging rock star in league with the devil is qualified to pass judgment on an album so invested in performing unironic nostalgia for the 1970s. I lived through those times, those trends, and those troubles, and what does some simpleton cat know about that?
I went through my first burst of musical obsession, like many of us do, in my late teens. Feeling oppressed by an unknown but potent Man and undergoing my own pupal stage of adolescence, I was attracted to music that allowed me to ignore this awkward body, thank you much. Progressive rock became a constant companion, or as constant as it could be in an age before portable music players and relatively cheap audio equipment. Remembering it now, I can see that the bedazzlement I felt for instrumental prowess and high-culture allusions was more than a little aspirational. I had a mind to study literature and music theory, to remake myself into the next Jon/Ian Anderson or Robert Fripp or Greg Lake.
From what I can gather, the title of the album has a kind of codebreaker built into it. For those baffled by Random Access Memories’ menagerie of guest appearances, musical references, and elaborate, sometimes operatic disco, I would pay attention to the third word in the title. This is an album of musical memories, of pre-made past experiences. Working with my band on our own last album, we began to use sampling and digital manipulation techniques to a much greater extent that we had before, and I began to realize something: while the technique of sampling is certainly a forward-looking (perhaps not so much anymore) and technically-advanced one, it is on the flip side inherently backward-looking. It is taking what already exists and remaking it. All music builds on traditions and preexisting influences, but sampling reminds you of that in a more direct way.
Daft Punk’s members might wear robotic suits, which point toward the future. However, their specific aesthetics remind one of earlier visions of the future. The group’s ambition on RAM is, therefore, not innovation but revivalism. Consider that the opening song is a clarion call to “Bring Life Back to Music.” Even with the trademark robotic voices, the song still sounds sincere, even tender. Recalling Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, it serves as a memorialization and revitalization (paradoxical but true) of a more organic time in music. The duo’s decision to use mostly organic instrumentation on the album is indicative of their approach this time around. While some songs are classic retro-infused dance material, like hit single “Get Lucky” and another collaboration with Pharrell Williams, “Lose Yourself to Dance,” many of the songs are more showcases for an eclectic, sometimes grandiose evocation of the 1970s.
One such example is the Paul Williams collaboration “Touch,” which directly references my favourite film–Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise–to cement the album’s 70s credentials. It’s also Daft Punk’s favourite film, and it somewhat mirrors the appeal of this French disco-electronic dance robot duo. “Touch,” itself, is an expansive song, running through eight minutes of sweeping strings, glistening synthesizers, and unabashedly schmaltzy singing from Paul Williams. There’s even a children’s choir. All of this could be incredibly annoying and incoherent if it weren’t so cohesive. Random Access Memories recaptures our popular-culture-tinted memories of the 1970s so well that its fantastical nostalgia seems earned rather than a cheap trick to pull our heartstrings.
In a world of sampling, everything is fair game, whether that be intellectualized cult camp like Phantom or the electrifying grooves of late 70s disco. Or the slightly less invigorating sounds of soft rock from the same era. What matters to Random Access Memories isn’t the coolness or respectability of what it is sampling and reviving but their authenticity, using these signifiers to push us back to life and better times. It’s a grand architectural attempt to bring the spirit of the 70s, the most fertile time for grand albums statements like this one, into the present. Luckily a Frankenstein’s monster is not the result. That makes it, oddly, rather optimistic and forward-looking. By returning to a more hopeful period of the past, it is able to revivify the progressive outlook of that decade’s music as well, and make it its own.