Track-By-Track: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Clash’s Matthew Bennett previews the most-hyped album of 2013…

I’m poised. I’m psyched. And I’m worried.

Daft Punk always tweak the global nipples of anticipation. Ever since 2001’s ‘Discovery’ they’ve riled the world into a frenzied state with a minimal-output-to-maximum-hype effect.

As we awaited the only playback copy being delivered, I reflected on my 20 years with Daft Punk. As a lifelong fan, I took my second-ever (edited for legal reasons) at Thomas Bangalter’s early ‘Daft Punk’ set at Bugged Out in 1994.

(I was naïve! Whilst in the queue and reading the flyer, I had to check with a fella in a leather jacket that it wasn’t a punk night).

The experience clearly fried my juvenile dancing mind, resulting in a mess of jangled feet.  

In 1996 I carried an unreleased copy of ‘Homework’ to university after a record shop in Macclesfield accidently sold it to me months ahead of its rearranged release. Many students wouldn’t believe it was even their album. Kudos ensued. My fan-boy obsession rocketed.

Once sponsored by the warm bosom of a student loan, I frantically learnt how to DJ badly with Roulé records such as Bangalter’s ‘Spinal Scratch’ or ‘Trax On Da Rocks’, which cemented the foundations for the French Touché sound: a dance movement that’s powered France’s underground ever since.

Later, I had the privilege of doing a cover interview for Clash with Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo around their ‘Human After All’ album. That was followed by the duo smashing the Clash stage at Rockness on 2007’s ‘Alive’ tour.

In short, they’ve shaped my younger musical mind, and helped me get hooked on a lifetime-long career in dance music. Consequently I’ve devoured everything Daft Punk has ever released. Now their fourth studio album, ‘Random Access Memories’, has just arrived in the room…

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‘Give Life Back To Music’
No prologue. No warm up. No teaser soliloquy. Straight into the disco! Daft Punk set their stall out early and down the front is Nile Rodgers, the powerhouse behind disco legends Chic. His unmistakable funky fretwork fuses with a crescendo that quickly leads to a vocoder-ed vocal drop, sampled crowd cheers and incidental sounds. It’s loopy robotic disco just like we remembered it. I’m relaxing into their warm analogue dream; the production gleams so brightly my ears are almost blinded. I lean forward in my leather chair.  

‘The Game Of Love’
Cinematic soundscapes rise up, recalling US west coast driving experiences I’ve never had. The vocals are delivered by sad robots, melancholically pondering the time “when you decided to walk away”. The song has the lightness of easy listening, powered by an analogue pulse. Off-kilter percussion and weird keys perform a more interesting outro than the spine of the song suggested would be possible. “I just wanted you to stay…” whines the robot at the end. Poor, sad robot: if you had a heart to break, it’d be in at least four pieces. Overall, that was a tepid jaunt that didn’t really develop. I sink back into the leather.

‘Giorgio By Moroder’
Giorgio Moroder, the legendary Italian synth producer, is talking. It’s a monologue about him sleeping in his car around 1970 because he was too tired after his half-hour set in a German nightclub to drive home. Its vivid and informative before it feints into a signature-style Donna Summer synth wig out. This is tropical muzak meets Teutonic proto-techno. A strange and kitsch mix which finally drops away into more monologue inveigling the listener in the wisdom of integrity as he sound-bites such nuggets as: “No-one told me what to do” and “Free yourself from the melody and harmony”. A four-minute voyage ensues that’s crammed full of spazzed-out Roland 303 acid, crescendos drenched in glam processed guitars, orchestral sweeps, vinyl scratching and dizzyingly fingered bass chords. At nine minutes it ends abruptly. That was exhaustingly dense. Those monologues are really going to do my head in on repeated listens.  

A gentle, poignant piano teaser entices us in as delicate yet propulsive pads and gently brushed cymbals create an oh-so-sensitive structure on which a sad robot comes and sits. “There’s so many things I don’t understand.” It seems this android is a little lost. Maybe its watched Wall-E too many times. The machine continues morosely: “There’s a world living inside me that I can’t explain,” before wailing, “Doors all look the same.” As plummeting analogue reverberations swell, the robots mourns: “I can’t remember my name.”  Presumably this robot is incongruously in a K-hole. I’ve (edited for legal reasons) in Somerset once. Can robots confound themselves with recreational drugs? It seems so.

‘Instant Crush’
Lovely stuff, the lush west coast vibes are back. You can almost sense Fleetwood Mac having brunch with each other. Or Steely Dan waxing his bumper. (Yes, we know Steely Dan isn’t a guy.) The music instantly transports me from this dry office… but there’s more sad robot pleading. Thankfully the music this time has a lot more urgency, gilded keys colliding with thrilling air guitar moments. Our robot protagonists are still feeling that delusional experience; they’re squeaking about falling in love and pining “never to be alone again”. It seems the robots have a complex mental condition, an inverted depersonalisation disorder. Or these Frenchmen are taking their android narrative way too seriously. Maybe those helmets have fogged their vision a tad?

‘Lose Yourself To Dance’ (feat. Pharrell Williams)
Nile Rodgers is clearly back. Phew! The guitar is instantly livid with life and energy. Pharrell seems to be singing – crucially there’s no vocoder to be heard. It’s a slow jam, building into pure disco vibes, handclaps and studio voodoo in abundance. Rodgers is working his fret in double time as the vocals are tantalisingly leading us to the metaphorical dancefloor. Eventually the robots start harmonising. They’re keeping it simple. Repetitive phrases of “C’mon!” meld with chunky strutting and loops before they go for a long fade. Who does a long fade these days, eh?

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‘Touch’ (feat. Paul Williams)
Oooft! The androids are getting angry. Via the medium of Paul Williams from The Muppets fame, we’re suddenly slap bang in the middle of an astral opera, seemingly written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The robots are recalling being “touched”, possessed by “sensation” as big band brass breakdowns insinuate Broadway moments. A piano lumbers to the ghost of a choir. It’s really dragging on. We’re in a nightmarish delusion created by the short-circuitry of bad musical meets tired disco. Somewhere, Touché is in tears. Daft Punk’s Disney-fication continues strongly.

‘Get Lucky’ (feat. Pharrell Williams)
The pre-album single. This is sounding better and better amid this depressed robot day care centre fare. And it’s still as catchy as hell when heard in context of this unfolding album. ‘Random Access Memories’ seems to be mainly powered by the disco manna of the Chic guitarist. He’s propping up this deep-space journey, and you get the impression he can serve up his musical gold till Jupiter’s cows come home.

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First up are some large Disney strings: you can imagine Danny Elfman scampering around in the background with some lost analogue tapes from Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy sessions. Things are tempestuous but settle down into further sunshine vibes as the vocals return, like a horny Metal Mickey, to the topic of love and desire. “You are the light behind the cloud.” Now, Daft Punk lyrics often suck, but this album is perhaps their nadir of dog-log-fog rhyming. If you’re going to blast out average lyrics, the songs needs to slay us. 

Cute, playful and cinematic strings softly rise as melodies burble like a spring scene from Snow White. Can I hear Bangalter rustling around in the pantry finding more crackers to heap this cheese upon? Sorry, that was nasty. It’s getting edgy and darker, and these tones whisk me away again as film scores have the power to do. What does it conjure? I’m getting a paranoid house droid doing the ironing. Just before the end it swells into an enjoyable break-bleep that recalls William Orbit’s finer work in the late ‘90s. Another long fade.

‘Fragments Of Time’
We’re back to laconic disco. Suggestive guitars, determined drums and the whimsy of a gently tickled Moog dapple over human vocals, recalling driving to paradise. It’s impeccably produced, as percussive gestures pulse along with analogue warmth. It’s a jaunty ride that has more robots remembering fragments of previous lives, overly rhyming again but not as delirious as the space opera of ‘Touch’. In comparison this track has absolutely zero edges of friction and zero objectionable parts. In fact, that was lovely.

‘Doin’ It Right’ (feat. Panda Bear)
This is much better! Urgent vocoder and a decent clubby bassline combine in minimalist funk. Daft Punk have really considered their song architecture and flow – it’s ebbing and flowing with uncomfortable bi-polarity. This is clearly Panda Bear’s track: he sings in blocky, enunciated words, similar to his style in Animal Collective. It’s got a bit of an Afrika Bambaataa-proto-electro vibe. It’s also very much like Daft Punk’s great track ‘Technologic’, with fast-spat lyrics over terse low hertz. This is a great track, but feels like it should belong to another album. At least we found Panda Bear easily enough – Julian Casablancas’ presence on ‘Instant Crush’ went entirely unnoticed.

A spaceman is delivering stilted walkie-talkie banter. Sounds like a sample from the final Apollo mission, mumblings about a UFO. Grandiose organ chords build and massive drums tumble forth. Huge, digitised guitar parts chime as the ascending screech of a spacecraft dominates the sound field. This is fairly agonising. Child-like volume control flicks jar heavily with the lush production on other songs. The overall composition gathers pace, its makers clearly trying to write an expansive club banger; but it's a mess of ideas and sounds dated. Eventually the muttering is lost to the static fuzz of near silence. All three journalists look cautiously at each other before shaking heads at the offer of listening to any specific part or song again.

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We go home: slightly confused, but happy that Nile Rodgers can channel such incredible talent into Daft Punk’s increasingly melancholic robotic vision.

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Words: Matthew Bennett

‘Random Access Memories’ is released on May 17th.

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