Why Random Access Memories is the album of a lifetime.
I am, generally speaking, a big fan of the modern age. I am, for example, an big fan of not contracting smallpox, and I’m abhorred by the thought of a world without widely available internet access.
But something’s been bothering me about the 2010s, and that is the state of popular music. Those that know me are acutely aware of my penchant for obscure genres and bands that often fail to become popular enough to release debut albums (my love of Eurovision comes as an annual surprise to my friends). For me to bemoan ‘popular’ music may hence seem like an exercise in cultural snobbery. One may argue that ‘popular’ music is so called for good reason, though the truth is that choice is dreadfully stymied. The music business is an industry like any other, and when it’s reckoned to take £1million to break an artist into a “developed market” these supply-side issues become even starker. Even at the more ‘indie’ end of the mainstream spectrum, the NME (once the most reliable champion of alternative music) presently seem hellbent on championing only the most vanilla of bands. In short, we have a problem.
This post, however, is not an analysis of where things have gone wrong. This is a post about a record that has the capacity to blow popular music wide open again. This is a post about Daft Punk, who are, by all accounts, as equally unimpressed by the status quo. That their eight year absence is broken by a track called “Give Life Back to Music” speaks volumes, and musically, it sets a tone that runs right through the heart of Random Access Memories. ‘Derivative’ is a term often used derisively, but RAD’s influences are brazenly worn on boiler-suit sleeves – see Giorgio by Moroder, a nine minute disco/funk/orchestral monolith, which features the autobiographical narrations of the titular ’70s music producer, and his experiences of German discotheques, Moog Modulars and all.
Much has been made of RAM’s collaborators (particularly Pharrell Williams by virtue of being featured on the album’s lead single). Though, as noted by Mark Richardson writing for Pitchfork, the vocal tracks are very much subsumed into the overall mix, rather than being novelty showpieces that detract from the orchestration. And this is just as well, because RAM is a record for the old-school audiophile, one where the inflection of every note is sonically optimised, and the real rewards come with repeated listens. And despite previous albums establishing Daft Punk as undisputed masters of the sample, RAM draws upon the talent of some of the best session musicians in the business. It is hard to overstate just how good the live instrumentation sounds when overlaid with the duo’s traditional synth-play.
Picking highlights from the whole record is a slightly futile exercise, though ‘Touch/Get Lucky’ (two tracks that come as a pair in the context of the album as a whole) are probably be the best place to start. Positioned precisely at the half way mark, ‘Touch’ starts with the warped strains of 72 year old Academy Award winner Paul Williams, before the whole thing breaks into a chintz-laced marvel, full of brass, bass, and that piano refrain. “Touch, I remember touch…” isn’t an especially subtle lyric, but it’s one that resonates through the whole record, because there’s a bent to RAM that’s emphatically human (avoiding any obvious Daft Punk based pun). Because despite all the nuances, the meticulous mastering, the nigh-on autistic attention to detail, this is unabashedly popular music, and despite Messrs Bangalter and Homom-Christo very openly harking back to bygone musical eras, it’s popular music for right now.
Music industry – please take note.
- Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (funkyfletchmusic.com)
- The New Daft Punk Album Is Going To Change Your Life (businessinsider.com)
- Song of the Week 45: Touch – Daft Punk (with Paul Williams) (songoftheweekblog.wordpress.com)
- Daft Punk’s New Album (deepmusiclistening.wordpress.com)