In a perfect world, a record will stand on its' own. Nothing else will matter but the track listing, the art, the personnel and the sounds of it spinning. Records should be their own entity and that should be that. But as you and I know, the world isn't perfect and heavy is the cultural narrative.
The way people talk about music today (we talk about it everywhere: in 140 characters, in long-form rants, ranked reviews, et cetera) we hold our artists to an incredibly high standard. And before we talk about the Returning Champions - Daft Punk - and their new Random Access Memories we should remind ourselves how lucky we are to live in a place where people are brave enough to give us their most favorite possessions. They release their precious ideas out into the world for whatever reasons they might have (they think they can do it better than everyone else, they have a message, they just want to be free, it's the only thing they know how to do, it's the only thing they want to do...) and we are lucky because we get to be a part of it.
I've said my fair share of unfair and/or mean things about artists that I don't like, but I still get the fact that they are doing something that I cannot. (I also say this because there seems to be a fair share of dissatisfaction already surrounding this album and a lot of people are disappointed.) That being said, Daft Punk is Daft Punk because no one else can do what they do. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are two unique human beings who have been making music for 20 years. Sure, people made dance music before and after them, but they're just better at it. It's because their music from 10+ years ago still holds up, because everyone knows their songs, they're instantly recognizable, because Kayne sampled them...whatever you decide. Either way, I know you know them.
Daft Punk has self control. Their lifestyles seem under-modulated and they are private men. (A lot of their press is about just that.) Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are hard to find not just because they wear space helmets and full garb constantly, but because they know people don't need a constant flow of conversation. ("Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating.") They have control by way of discretion. They live concealed lives, which says a lot about the modern celebrity. And they know that.
(They're actually robots from space and only land on Earth when they're ready to drop the bass in their new singles and records.)
Daft Punk's privacy allows them to avoid their own hype machine. They have the pleasure very few artists have: a Daft Punk release is an event. (Although, when the album leaked five days before it's release, the Internet felt aflutter, like everyone was doing the same exact thing at the same exact time.) There was nothing but secrecy surrounding the record, but now we are getting hit in the in the face with it, like a big bass drop. Everyone is talking about Daft Punk. The story is manicured like their music. Daft Punk is exciting. Their music is something to talk about.
Internal memory of your computer is supposed to be "temporary" but we all know that isn't true. (Who knows if it's actually Random.) Most of us have external hard drives for a reason (and a back-up for said external hard drive.) 0's and 1's hold our data until the end of time, or if you prefer, until we get sick of it and move on to the next thing. But it never actually goes away. Our attention span is rapidly decreasing. It is no wonder why so many popular (and successful) bands recluse into seclusion to record music (see: Bon Iver, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend) so they can get the world off their minds and do whatever they want.
That being said, I wish we could give Random Access Memories a listen in our own cultural recluse. Without thinking about their secrecy and without thinking about the music that has come, gone and morphed since their last studio record. But that will never be the world we live in. (Would we think differently at all?) People are already moving on, comparing it to something better or lesser and to past Daft Punk releases because that is how an artists' narrative is built. It's only natural. We all do it. So, it's safe to say that this record isn't Discovery. But were we really expecting that? (Another "One More Time"?)
It's good that Random Access Memories doesn't sound like old Daft Punk. It sounds like the jazz records my dad plays, sometimes it sounds like an underwater soundtrack with whales off in the distance ("Touch" featuring Paul Williams) and sometimes it sounds like a car wash ("Motherboard.") Sometimes you can't control yourself and you dance. And other times you are surprised how weird it is, like the regal opening of "Beyond." But then you get into it because it's only an hour and fourteen minutes and you've spent more time that that watching bad TV or crappy movies.
My favorite track is "Giorgio by Moroder" not only because it starts with spoken word (which is something the public never - usually - interacts with). There is an amazing jazz piano solo, there is string instrumentation, incredible bass work and fusion drums. Think about it: records released now DO NOT have instrumentation like that. The playing on this track is incredible and classic. The Punk blends old school funk-fusion with new synth and scratch. They used humans (read: famous session artists) more than they used computers, which sounds like a silly lie, but it's true. And we learn the mother of all artistic lessons in this track, spoken by Giorgio by Moroder himself: "Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do and there was no preconceived conception of what to do."
Look at them, breaking the fourth wall. But the fact is, we DO have a preconceived narrative and conception of what we can and cannot do. (Wait, do we?) Every listener has a sense of what's right and wrong. It's called Everyone Listens To Music And Has An Opinion About It. But it's just opinion. (And so is this.) There is nothing wrong with Random Access Memories. In fact, it's good for us: brining a sort of free form jazz to the front of the class, leaving us uncomfortable and guessing. (Guessing, "Is this dance?", "Wait, what is this?", "Can I even dance to this?", "What were they thinking?")
Bangalter and de Homem-Christo came out themselves saying they thing the record isn't that great, "So our new album is supposed to really suck." But they made it anyways. (And it doesn't suck.)
The beautiful solo piano lead in to "Within" belongs on a George Winston album. The first words we hear on the track are, "There are so many things I don't understand/There's a world within me that I cannot explain/Many rooms to explore but the doors look the same." Sounds about right coming from 40 year olds who have spent half their lives creating for others and living in (somewhat of) a spotlight. And it also seems like every musician, no matter what age or genre, is always contemplating the meaning of life. (They are Human After All.)
"Instant Crush" features Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas and could've belonged on a Strokes record. It's a terrific hit. (Sirius XMU is already playing it.)
"Lose Yourself To Dance" (ALSO featuring Pharrell Williams) is a neat dance track. Yes, I call it neat because it's tied up and simple. There are handclaps, he sings out the word "guitar" a number of times and it's six minutes long. [This record is begging for a remix. Who's first?]
The Daft Punk robot voices are all over RAM. The voices slow it down and are used to drop the bass on the hit of the year, "Get Lucky." It needs to be said that "Get Lucky" might be the best songs of the decade. It's totally unforgettable even though it's track eight and comes out after "Touch" (which gets stranger by the second with a spoken word open and close.) Daft Punk wrote, recorded and released "Get Lucky" as the lead single for a reason. Because it delivers. It's unlike the rest of the record and it's better than the rest of the record. I think they know that.
Random Access Memories isn't top heavy or better in the second half. Sometimes it's a struggle to get through, which isn't what we expected. Or wanted? But the fact of the matter is, this whole record swings back around, like a good narrative. They use the old tricks they themselves helped popularize and the new tricks that happened while they were away, living their lives. And it has to be said that the presentation of Random Access Memories is spectacular: be it the art direction or the (inevitably ignored) release plan. Our Internet Friend Andy said it best, "the real winner here is the marketing team."