Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories
By Ethan Davenport
Daft Punk’s latest studio album dropped in the spring of 2013 and, as of this writing, “Get Lucky” is still on the radio. Additionally, the album won several Grammy awards and I personally haven’t heard a single negative review.
The French electronica duo have a long history of innovation and combining unlike or surprising elements to form a unified whole. Let’s look at what makes Random Access Memories the outstanding album it is.
- “Give Life Back to Music”
The first track of the album opens with a tremendous fanfare, which builds up and then quickly subsides into a mellow but complex melody of guitar, piano, and drums. The track has only one repeated verse, the most significant part of which says: “Let the music of your life / give life back to music.” This is a big part of the entire album thematically, as Daft Punk wanted this album to have a more human sound. They backed off of bleeding edge mixing and synthesizers in favor of the more old-school equipment they used in their first years as a group.
“Give Life Back to Music,” to my thinking at least, is a literal call to action for all musicians, but especially electronic musicians (and who isn’t one, to some extent?) to rely less heavily on technology and instead employ their own ingenuity and talent. This opinion may not be shared, obviously, but when applied to this album it makes a lot of sense.
- “The Game of Love”Starting on a subdued note of synths and funky guitar, this is a fairly melancholy post-breakup track. Although more lyrically complex than the previous track, “Game” is nonetheless quite simple and straightforward.
The instrumentation is quite pleasant, though, and the blending of the synthesizers and the vocals gives the track an interesting and satisfying flavor.
- “Giorgio by Moroder”The third track doubles as an interview with acclaimed electronica pioneer Giorgio Moroder, who began playing and producing music in the late 1960s. He details the beginnings of his musicianship as well as his interest in electronic music, as well as ruminating on the nature of composing music.
The interview is interspersed with pleasant and technically proficient instrumentals, along with a touch of orchestra for good measure. This track fits well with the theme of returning to the roots of electronica, and it does that in a very literal way. It winds down to a simple beating click, probably a homage to the click that Moroder mentions earlier in the interview.
- “Within””Within” is another melancholy track, but this one is more haunting and existential than track 2. The narrator describes their own confusion and apparent lack of self. This one is heavy on the vocals, with synth and drums as the main instrumentation, but also a bit of piano.
Although this track is relatively short, it manages to convey a deep sense of…almost loss, but rather of never having had anything in the first place. I do not know if there’s a word for that, but there is a song for it.
- “Instant Crush”This track features Strokes vocalist Julian Casablancas in excellent but unusual form. Singing in a heavily-fuzzed quasi-falsetto, Casablancas’ vocal expertise and guitar meshes well with Daft Punk’s instrumentals (as well as the multiple other contributions from the other musicians features on the album). The combination is really exciting.
The lyrics themselves are somewhat obscure, but detail a tumultuous relationship between the narrator and at least one other party.
- “Lose Yourself to Dance”The first of the albums two hyped-up party songs, this track was co-written with Pharrell Williams and Niles Rodgers (along with the other party track, “Get Lucky”). It is a smooth, excited track with layered vocals and a rhythm guitar that provides the perfect underlay. The track builds in complexity gradually, peaking in the middle, and then retreating once again, only to build and retreat another time.
If this track doesn’t make you want to get up and groove, you may need medical attention.
- “Touch”Beginning with a series of techno-arpeggios, this track has some astounding vocals from Paul Williams. Once the main body of the track begins, it’s a rolling, brassy, very fun sort of track. Additionally, the later half of the track has a sort of cosmic spacey sound to it. The lyrics are pleasantly complex, and the track uses a wide variety of sounds and techniques.
- “Get Lucky”If you haven’t already heard this one, you may have died several years ago. This was the debut track for the album, and it has been all over the place ever since the album dropped. Pharrell’s vocals fit extremely well with the instrumentation, and the track in general is quite cohesive.
The track tells a simple, upbeat story and when Daft Punk’s vocals come in, it gets that much better. This track was chosen as the keystone with good reason.
- “Beyond”Beginning with an orchestral fanfare and subsiding quickly into subdued instrumentals under simple but expansive lyrics, this track has hidden depths. The first several verses are almost monosyllabic, but the latter half of the song up the complexity. The last few minutes contain complex instrumental work, and the synths during this section remind me of the 2010 soundtrack of Tron: Legacy.
- “Motherboard”This instrumental track contains fluttering melodies and brings in several different instruments at different times for a varied sound. Near the middle of the track, the melodies fade away in favor of a big, hollow warble quickly backed up by intense percussion, but the other melodies return again, meshing with the drums for a slight variation on the previous half of the track.
- “Fragments of Time”This track, with vocals from Todd Edwards, tells a story of memories preserved in music–a feeling which nearly all music lovers can appreciate. The phrase “keep building these random memories” is a nice reference to the title of the album. Neither the vocals nor the instrumentals on this track are particularly outstanding amongst the other tracks on the album, but it’s a solid, cohesive track nonetheless. (Although the synth solo during the vocal intermission is quite good.)
- “Doin’ it Right”This track jumps immediately into the vocals, allowing them to take the forefront, although the percussion grows more complex as the track continues. What really makes this track stand out, however, is the layered vocals: Daft Punk’s quick, robotic voices underneath Panda Bear’s slower, more expressive and soulful singing. An outstanding vocal showcase.
- “Contact”Another quasi-instrumental, this track samples audio from the NASA Apollo 17 mission, after which synthetic organs kick in, followed shortly by a complex synth melody. The rest of the track is an exercise in instrumental and synthetic virtuosity, eventually climbing to a grand crescendo of spiky static and the cutting out entirely at the end of the track.
This album, to my thinking, is one of the best of 2013. (I guess the Grammy judges agree with me.) However, this is not solely due to its musical content. Daft Punk has a following that borders on the cultish, and it’s not because they like to make a spectacle of themselves–not that there’s anything wrong with being spectacular, really, but it is not the Daft way. Guy-Manuel and Thomas are quite camera- and interview-shy.
So why is their fan base so completely enthusiastic? As far as I can tell, it’s because Daft Punk make consistently great music, and have done since their inception.
And this album in particular was a very big deal. Dropping nearly a decade after their previous studio album, and 6 long years after their smash live album Alive 2007, Random Access Memories caused an enormous uproar among fans, myself included. When that first 15-second spot rolled on Saturday Night Live, everyone went crazy. That short snippet of “Get Lucky” promised classic Daft Punk, but with a unique flavor coming from the numerous collaborators on the album.
Each new piece revealed caused just as much enthusiasm and speculation as the last one, whether it was a photoshoot of the duo in their sequined suits, or the video of a jam session with all-clear instruments. I personally have never seen an album with more anticipation around its release.
And, unbelievably (or entirely believably), the album stood up to the hype. It’s excellent. Everything about it is excellent.
Get it on vinyl if you can. The sound is luscious and the liner notes are amazing.