(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #94 – released May 17, 2013)
Track listing: Give Life Back To Music / The Game Of Love / Giorgio By Moroder / Within / Instant Crush / Lose Yourself To Dance / Touch / Get Lucky / Beyond / Motherboard / Fragments of Time / Doin’ It Right / Contact
Music saturates our collective unconscious more than and unlike any other art form. Even as film and television references become more ubiquitous and quotes from literature and allusions to all the finer arts persist, none of them carry the weight or omnipresence of sound and song. Just think of every place one can physically inhabit, from inside of a car to aisles of a chain pharmacy—it’s simply in the air, providing a soundtrack to your life, whether you desire it or not. The imprint music leaves behind inevitably spills over to spaces one mentally inhabits as well.
Random Access Memories celebrates music’s presence in both our exterior and interior lives and, in particular, the role it played in shaping the lives of its two primary creators, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, better known as Daft Punk. Formed as teenagers in early ‘90s France, the duo eventually stumbled upon a shtick that immediately set them apart from the crowd on their 1997 debut LP Homework: always publicly clad in face-obscuring helmets and dark gloves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo rather resembled robots and often sounded like them too, layering vocoder-enhanced vocals on top of sample-heavy electronic dance music. Subsequent albums only further played up this shtick: Discovery (2001) scored crossover hits like “One More Time” and “Digital Love” on the strength of their soulful samples and catchy melodies, but Human After All (2005) was widely accused of being too mechanical and brittle, suggesting that robot-pop, like any other novelty had its limitations.
Arriving eight years later (with only the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in between), RAM initially sounds like classic Daft Punk (roughly half the tracks still have robot vocals) and a completely different band, in part because it almost entirely eschews samples for live instruments. Yes, there’s still plenty of synths and drum machines, but just as much guitar, bass, live drums and piano. Furthermore, it’s the style of live instrumentation that’s key—almost overwhelmingly, RAM studiously recreates late ‘70s/early ‘80s disco and funk, heavy on such period touches as upfront, chicken-scratch rhythm guitar (most of it played by the master of that style, Chic’s Nile Rodgers) and Fender Rhodes electric piano.
When you consider how old Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are, it’s obvious that RAM is an extended homage to the music they grew up with, made even more explicit by the presence of Rodgers and other period figures such as producer Giorgio Moroder and musician/actor Paul Williams (the latter co-starred and wrote the music for Brian de Palma’s 1974 satirical musical Phantom of the Paradise, whose titular character heavily inspired Daft Punk’s look.) But RAM’s impact not only comes from how meticulously it conjures up the past while also drawing on the scientific phenomena outlined in the album title, but also in how it reinterprets it for and places it firmly within the present—not only with those 21st century vocoder vocals but also a renewed energy and the hindsight that, however much of a time capsule it may occasionally resemble, some music actually endures through its omnipresence, continually resurfacing and reintroducing itself to new generations and audiences.
“Give Life Back To Music” opens RAM on an irresistible, all-systems-go high with a vigorous, thrilling instrumental fanfare made up of melodic triplets. One can easily detect an overarching philosophy, not only in the music which switches back and forth between the fanfare and an instantly catchy funk groove, but also the robot-sung lyrics, which consist of the song title and variations thereof: “Let the music in tonight / just turn on the music” reads almost remedially simplistic (like Lipps Inc.’s post-disco smash “Funkytown”), but it’s effective. The following track, “The Game of Love” reprises the robot-vox, but at a slower, more hypnotic tempo falling somewhere between early Sade and Michael McDonald—perhaps the least cool reference I’ve come up with so far, and certainly far from the last.
RAM returns to this formula often with enough modification to keep the whole from seeming monotonous. “Beyond” begins with an orchestral fanfare performed by an actual orchestra complete with the pomp of a big brass section and a flurry of swirling strings before switching to a backing analogous of the groove and vocals of “The Game of Love”. “Within”, meanwhile, is a quiet-storm ballad kicked off by a lengthy solo from Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales before the song proper emerges, featuring the deepest and perhaps saddest robot vocals you might ever hear.
Still, Daft Punk are savvy enough to know when to subvert the formula. Musically, “Instant Crush” sidesteps funk altogether for a new wave homage, bringing to mind The Cars in particular with its analog synths and precise rhythm guitar. This time, the robot vox come from a special guest: Julian Casablancas of post-punk revivalists The Strokes. Filtered through a vocoder, he sounds absolutely nothing like his usual Lou Reed-ish self (even if RAM’s cover is an explicit homage to one of Reed’s albums)—actually, he sounds better: more androgynous for sure, but also more expressive and maybe even more… human? It helps that “Instant Crush” sports one of RAM’s most affecting melodies, especially in the rapidly-sung chorus and again towards the end when Casablancas suddenly shifts into a higher register (“I / don’t wanna start / don’t get upset / I’m not with you.”)
Other times, the robot vocals are deployed in tandem with additional, effects-free vocals. Both the monster hit “Get Lucky” and its less popular follow-up single “Lose Yourself To Dance” are showcases for Rodgers and singer Pharrell Williams—respectively, the songs are blissful, ascendant disco and tight, handclap-enhanced funk, stretched out to around six minutes each to allow listeners and dancers alike to work up a sweat. Each one shrewdly, effectively adds on the robot vocals to sustain interest. In “Get Lucky”, it’s the echo of the chorus (“We’re up all night to get lucky”) that comes after the second one, building and repeating until the bridge returns with Williams’ vocal now serving as the melodic counterpoint to the chorus it was always meant to be. In “Lose Yourself to Dance”, it’s the forever modulating, “Come on, come on, come on, come on,” that locks into the song’s existing groove perfectly while also suddenly opening up its melodic potential and possibilities of where it might go from there.
However, looking beyond the singles, RAM’s most stunning moments are its deep cuts: wild (the less charitable might say self-indulgent) experiments that seem to have been sprung deep from the guys’ psyches. The third track, “Giorgio By Moroder” clocks in at over nine minutes, and not one of them is superfluous. As Moroder himself talks in his distinct Italo-German accent, reminiscing about his early career and how he became an electronic music pioneer in the late ’70s, the background evolves from crowd noise to a simple disco beat to a very Moroder-esque synth hook that overtakes the track until the man himself returns. He says, “You want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being correct,” and after noting, “There was no preconception of what to do,” the music briefly drops out and dramatic strings take over, kicking off an extended instrumental coda full of live polyrhythmic drumming, furious turntable scratching and guitar-hero leads on top. It’s arty, proggy, and deeply idiosyncratic, but also welcoming like a hand held out from its creators trying to describe something rather inexplicable—why does one listen to and make music and, through it, how does one inspire in the same way they themselves found inspiration?
Although a minute shorter than “Giorgio By Moroder”, “Touch” beams in ever further from an hidden, psychological space. Co-written by and featuring vocals from Paul Williams, it casts him as a robot yearning to be a human again (a la Phantom of the Paradise.) If I’ve lost you with that ridiculous, almost mawkish concept, indeed, “Touch” is a preposterous concoction, from its extended intro where what resembles the famous five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is sliced and diced up as if thrown in a blender, to the “Hey Jude”-like “Hold on, if love is the answer” repeated chorus that takes up most of the song’s back half. But “Touch” is chock full of neat little left turns, like how it magically shifts from soft-rock ballad to juiced-up banger in the second verse, or the mid-section boogie-woogie disco playfully harkening back to Williams’ performance of “An Old Fashioned Love Song” on The Muppet Show. However, it’s Williams’ aged, wobbly voice that holds these disparate parts together, suffusing the song with a very human fragility and warmth.
Such tenderness is also felt in “Fragments of Time”; its lyrics not only reveal the source of the album’s title (“Keep building these random memories / Turning our days into melodies,”) but also provide the most cogent distillation of RAM’s reason for being. Vocalist Todd Edwards sings over a wistful, rock/r&b hybrid that seems plucked straight from late 1980, specifically in how it recalls both Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July. It’s a warm, nostalgic sound, highly discernible from most anything else recorded in 2013 but also modified just slightly enough to appear as if coming from the present more so than the past (particularly in the squelchy synths and talk-box solo before the final verse.) In the chorus, Edwards sings, “If I just keep playing back / these fragments of time / Everywhere I go / these moments will shine.” It’s Daft Punk at their most direct, arguing for music as a conduit for nostalgia, sustenance and transcendence.
RAM initially appealed to me in how well it stitched all of its seemingly disparate parts together. For example, the piano intro of “Within” is an ideal palette cleanser after the explosive climax of “Giorgio By Moroder”, the final piano note of “Touch” is beautifully replicated in the first chord of following track “Get Lucky”, and “Doin’ It Right” which simply weaves together staccato, robot-sung iterations of its title with Panda Bear’s clean, legato counterpoint vocals gives one space to breathe before techno instrumental closer “Contact” pushes all levels into the red, relentlessly building towards an apocalyptic finale.
With some time and repeated listens, RAM in my mind became a kindred spirit of and perhaps even a worthy successor to one of my favorite albums of this young century, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You. Almost entirely made up of existing, sampled sounds, it is nearly RAM’s opposite solely in terms of creation; otherwise, it’s similarly obsessed with music and how easily and rewardingly one can utilize it to bring the past into the present while also looking towards the future. As with Since I Left You, RAM is a tough act to follow; at this writing, Daft Punk have yet to release anything else apart from collaborating with The Weeknd on his Starboy album in 2016. Meanwhile, RAM endures and remains another fragment of time having entered the collective unconscious—primarily through spins of “Get Lucky”, but also for those music fans curious enough to delve deeper into it, discovering its secret, strange treasures.
Up next: You can’t pin her down.
“Fragments Of Time”: