With their new album Random Access Memories, Daft Punk, the visionary dance-floor duo with the serious visors, has achieved the obvious and the counterrevolutionary: Dance music that is danceable and humanistic. As a comment on the record’s retro fetish, someone posted on YouTube an early-seventies Soul Train moment set to the sounds of Daft Punk's sublime new single. Not that we needed the visuals to compare the Pharrell Williams-falsetto-y sex song Get Lucky to Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto-y sex song Get Down, but the beat fits.
Which is really no big deal, except that the (African-American) Soul Train performers are actually moving their feet and bodies – a delighted boogie parade. Compare that to (mostly white) fans of modern EDM, who in tents and arenas pump fists and energy drinks, but whose hips remain still.
Or compare Daft Punk’s disco-ball manifesto Lose Yourself to Dance to the so-called dance pop of Lady Gaga, who like so many others of her kind attaches a hard, bullying four-by-four beat to her material. If I am moved to dance to the latter, it is in the same way I might lift my feet at the prompting of a cowboy’s bullets.
“The music of today is a lot of different styles, a lot of different genres generated by computers,” Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, one half of the helmet-wearing Frenchmen, told National Public Radio. “And what was really lacking to us is the soul that a musician can bring.” And so now we have de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, two of the original laptop auteurs, squeezing blood into the machine – their use of the dehumanizing Vocoder and talk-box effects, for example, suddenly seem quaint and ultra-human when placed next to the soulless, rampant Auto-Tune shenanigans of today.
This isn’t the genre’s first reboot. (If we can even call it that; young EDM audiences likely won’t even hear Random Access Memories as dance music.) We should probably look back to 1996 for Fatboy Slim’s Better Living Through Chemistry and his You've Come a Long Way, Baby from 1999. That latter record’s chant was “right here, right now,” and it sure felt that way at the time.
It wasn’t just Fatboy Slim’s big beats that made dance music fun. At work were classic song-writing techniques, including the affecting use of harmony. We hear the same with Random Access Memories, particularly on the parts contributed by Chilly Gonzales, one of the flesh-and-blood musicians brought in for collaboration. Gonzales, the Canadian expat pianist-producer and friend of Feist, composed and plays the elegant F-chord crossing between the album’s first three songs (which are in the key of A minor) and the second three songs (B flat).
“The fact that they were asking for this musical bridge to happen just shows that they have absorbed a lot of what classical composers were obsessed with,” Gonzalez says in one of a series of online videos (The Collaborators), “which is that musical key dictates so much of what someone feels.”
Other humans involved are the Chic guitarist and disco super-producer Nile Rodgers, the star jazz-fusion drummer Omar Hakim, the pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz, and Paul Williams, the seventies songster who lends voice to the album’s weird, sprawling epic Touch.
The disco vibe is suspended for the album’s sore-thumb track, Fragments of Time, a tepid-but-tuneful Steely Dan jam apparently meant to invoke a Southern California/Fleetwood Mac feel. It’s second-rate, in any case, but humans do make mistakes.
Other humanistic tricks include a voice-over by the Italian disco-music pioneer Giorgio Moroder (I Feel Love), who speaks about freed minds and no preconceptions on the popcorn-synthed Giorgio by Moroder. On the summer-funk glide of Give Life Back to Music, party-people chatter is dubbed, a winking nod to Lionel Richie, who used to go at it all night long.
Make no mistake, this is a party album. It is also two electronic musicians in anonymous headwear telling a story about a pair of robots trying to feel the passion of humans. It’s a little cheesy at times, but the mission has to be judged as successfully completed. And if nothing else, the disco-era cliché of the abrupt and inflexible Robot should now be put into the closet. Dance music, at least for the summer, has been unstiffened.