I’m sure my experience listening to Daft Punk’s hotly anticipated Random Access Memories for the first time a couple weeks ago mirrored the experiences of many others. The first thing you probably think is “This is quite… different.” The conversation jumps to Daft Punk in the historical moment—Random Access Memories as a reaction against laptop music, dubstep and a return to simpler times and even, yes, the playing of instruments. Particularly, RAM is steeped in the slow-grooving beats of funk and disco, music that simultaneously provided relief from a decade of turmoil and war and a soundtrack for the continuing currents of social change. It is an obvious departure from Daft Punk’s exuberant electro-heavy dance music of the past. No “Harder Better Faster Stronger” to be found.
First of all, I don’t see how Daft Punk making a 70s-tinged album is much of a surprise. It seems like there’s always a funk and disco party going on here in New York and each one is well-attended and well-enjoyed. Maybe because we have returned to that cultural moment of simultaneous fatigue and still striving for change. Regardless, the French have been returning to the 70s for a while now too: see Ed Banger’s Breakbot or Justice’s guitar-shredding prog rock album. And I say good for them! Nobody wants to see artists rehashing the same thing over and over again. It ceases to be “relevant.” It gets stale. Lookin’ at you, M.I.A.
Anyway, I found this album “different” because of its markedly different emotional quality. This album often makes me want to cry, and then dance, and then cry again. Random Access Memories is dripping with emotion, much like “Something About Us” from Discovery. With its lower BPM and moaning robots, Random Access Memories feels somber and contemplative to me, as if clearly written by people who are growing old and tired. After all, the helmeted duo are both almost 40 years old. “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas is nothing short of a punch to the gut, in which the Strokes frontman trademark melancholy over loss gets the Daft Punk treatment. Or take “Game of Love”, a bona-fide disco ballad twinkling with synthesized magic, also about heartbreak. I also love the other duet with Pharrell, “Lose Yourself to Dance.” A title like that sounds like it will be a four-to-the-floor thumper, but instead we get Pharrell sweet-talking us over slow disco licks.
It’s more mature and reflective, yes, but it’s still in love with music. Many will note that RAM contains musical references to like, everything ever. It is a love letter to everything ever in the history of dance music. Even though the centerpiece is a spoken monologue, I love listening to “Giorgio by Moroder”, in which Giorgio Moroder talks calmly about his passion for music and his start pioneering on the synthesizers, mixed in with a lovely electronic arpeggio, a complex but understated beat, a solid bass line and even some violins. This passion and love is also obvious on “Beyond”, which after an opening of strings (appropriate for a montage at a roller disco, I think) becomes a perfect marriage of robot and old-school groovin’, and with a lot of meaning too:
Dream, beyond dreams
Beyond life you will find your song
Before sound, to be found close your eyes
Then rise, higher still, endless thrill
To the land of love beyond love
Come alive and you’ll find
Forever watching you arrive
You are the night, you are the ocean
You are the light behind the cloud
You are the end and the beginning
A world where time is not allowed
There’s no such thing as competition
To find a way we lose control
Remember, love’s our only mission…
This is the journey of the soul
The perfect song is framed with silence
It speaks of places never seen
You hold your promise long forgotten,
It is the birthplace of your dreams
Music carries me through life. I wholeheartedly believe that music is a gateway to the sublime, to a world beyond anything in this absurd universe, and we are so lucky in our lives to experience this world beyond. To share it with others. I feel like Random Access Memories is that feeling, that feeling of love, of dreams, of a life filled with both joy and sadness, all wrapped in one.