French Dance duo Daft Punk’s fourth proper studio album, Random Access Memories kicked off to a great start before it was even released. After a surprising commercial on Saturday Night Live, followed by an eight part collaboration series, a trailer debut at Coachella (please do that hip thrust at 0:53 again, Pharrell), in depth interviews with Rolling Stone & Pitchfork, an unboxing event, enough confusion as to which version floating around the internet of the first single “Get Lucky” was an official release, and an iTunes streaming event: the record came out.
Not only did the record release, but it broke two Spotify records (one for most played song on Spotify for “Get Lucky” and one for most played first-week album streams), debuted at number one on the Billboard Charts, and debuted at number one on the charts in the United Kingdom (where it outsold the rest of the top 10 records combined). So, what aided to the success of this record? Well, it certainly helps that this is their first commercial release since the repetitive and lukewarm Human After All, as well as a follow up to the electronic/orchestral driven Tron Legacy soundtrack. All eyes were focused on what these two “robots” were up to, and it was inevitable that this record would have some sort of impact, regardless of the content.
The content? For starters, from an engineering standpoint, it’s next to flawless. The average dynamic range for Random Access Memories is at 8dB, with the Japanese bonus track “Horizon” containing an average of 10dB of range! This is excellent news considering that aggressive dance music released nowadays sways to a more compressed and limited state of mind. There’s some distortion involved throughout the record, but it seems more intentional than a misfire during the mixing/mastering processes.
Technically speaking, “Giorgio by Moroder” sparkles. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, the track interpolates jazz into the Electronic overtones and has Giorgio Moroder (“Love To Love You” by Donna Summer producer) providing spoken word over the opening minutes. While it’s complex in a structural standpoint, with arpeggiated synthesized notions and disco-funked bass, the mix itself isn’t over the top. Sometimes the mix seems to be more mid-range focused, there are portions of the track in which higher octave elements flourish, bringing an understanding of the mix as a whole. The most stunning realization in how proper the mix of the track is comes in at the halfway point, where an orchestra infiltrates completely, recalling the Tron soundtrack, also becoming a slight reminder toward Madonna’s Ray of Light record. Eventually, the strings, the bass, the synths, the excellent live drum kit all come together with an introduction of guitars for the final few minutes. It’s a track with many sides, and while it’s not the one on RAM that you’d think to put on first, the song is quite the immaculate journey about the beginnings of Moroder’s career and the metaphorical connotation of musical freedom as a whole.
Continuing in terms of genre hopping, well known musician and producer Pharrell Williams contributes vocals to two of the most funk-infused, disco hitting, R&B filled dance tracks that recall the soul of Daft Punk’s Discovery album, but play out more traditionally than anything displayed on the 2001 release. Nile Rodgers aides guitar lines on both tracks, allowing organic melody to be able to thrive and create a 70’s throwback vibe, but with modern twist.
Williams oozes high pitch sensuality on “Lose Yourself To Dance.” Stereo claps flow through the track’s entirety while he offers his shirt to someone so they can wipe up their sweat. In regards to stereo effects, vocal layers are executed greatly. Harmonies unfold at each repeat of the word sweat, and Daft Punk vocoder effects build up greatly that by the end of the track they’re playing with each other’s melodies, layering, and bouncing through the “Come on” repeats and “Everybody dancing on the floor” lines.
“Get Lucky” demonstrates consistency with the Pharrell tracks, this time focusing more on a lower register vocal and classic reverb and subtle delay effects. There’s a small, interesting, mixing technique that does sound like a small glitch in that it’s a bit obvious that verse one and verse two are from different takes, with the second verse being a bit more full sounding. However, it’s a minor defect and does next to nothing to decrease the quality of the song itself.
“Fragments of Time” also follows along with the Pharrell tracks. Trading in one crooner for another, Todd Edwards, who collaborated previously with the duo on “Too Long (Discovery, 2001)”. At times, the guitar/synth lines sound shockingly country influenced, and are faintly glitched up by Edwards through the stereo imaging of the song. All in all, this one is an unblemished look at perfection in production, contemporary song structure, and vulnerable, genuine, multiplex emotion inside a track.
Looking at the more electronic portions of Random Access Memories, “Instant Crush” furnishes highly effected vocals from Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. While deadpan in sound, Casablancas drones on emotionally. Underneath, you can hear a dry, lower un-processed vocal layer as well, adding a unique human element inside of the song’s meaning. Throughout the track, there’s a lamenting at the pre-chorus that painfully lets out “I listened to your problems, now listen to mine, I don’t want you anymore” before rushed and joyfully concluding “kinda counted on you being a friend, kinda given up on giving away.”
In opposition of the emotion, “Doin’ it Right” with Panda Bear of Animal Collective strives for a minimal 808-sound, heavy repetitive vocoder lines, and a full, hall reverb delivery from Panda Bear, delivering one of the most carefree lyrics on all of the Daft Punk record: “If you lose your way tonight that’s how you know the magic’s right.” Analog-electronic elements play along like a more matured version of “One More Time,” and by the time the short synth solo comes along, it’s evident that this spacious track is a force to be reckoned with. Reverberation truly makes this track, as without it, the depth would not be full of the impact it contains.
The only place Random Access Memories seems to drag is on “The Game Of Love.” Though, in theory, it recalls a melodramatic siren of the late 70’s, early 80’s music scene, the fourth track, “Within,” has a more mature grasp on the concept of the full representational melancholy that a track can behold. What track does it even better than the two aforementioned tracks is the gut-wrenching “Touch,” in which an extremely raw and real delivery from Paul Williams. “Touch” plays from it’s gloomy state, into a frenzy of light jazz and fast paced melodies before being reversed and completely twisted into a slower tempo, choir-used section that theatrically urges you to “hold on, if love is the answer you’re home.” It’s completely progressive, outstandingly beautiful, and heartbreakingly relatable.
“Motherboard” and “Contact” are christ-like Electronic compositions and are needed to be listened to, not described. Layers, melodies, arpeggiated synth lines, and electronic emotion. If there are two tracks that demonstrate where the direction of the monotonous mainstream Electronic Dance Music world should go, it’s here.
Random Access Memories is seemingly random when you look at it. There’s captivating sections in almost every aspect of the record, smart recording techniques, analog-oriented, full of realism music that covers a broad spectrum of human emotion. For two individuals who have made a career being robots, they sure do know the randomness of the human heart and translate it through music immaculately.
Congratulations, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter. You’ve hit home with this one.