“The present has no ribbon,” Pharrell Williams sings on Get Lucky, and he’s right. The early line from Daft Punk’s already-smash new single foreshadowed the surprise release of the band’s new album, Random Access Memories. After months of hype around a May 21 release date, there it was on Monday, streaming on iTunes – no pomp, no circumstance, no ribbon.
But it was definitely a present. Random Access Memories may go on to be one of the biggest-selling albums of the year, and deservedly so. There is also a distinct possibility it will do even more: Daft Punk, the French house pioneers who delivered electronic music to mainstream audiences in the 1990s, has crafted an album that intends to disrupt the movement it helped create.
Some observers are going so far as to call this a “ Zeitgeist moment.” Maybe. What’s definitely true is that with Daft Punk’s disco experiment – “We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers,” member Thomas Bangalter told Rolling Stone, “but with people” – he has already produced an instant No. 1 single and broken music-streaming records.
This album, which rewrites Daft Punk’s approach to music, could steer pop in a direction it hasn’t dared go since disco died one fateful night in Chicago in 1979. It is man-powered instruments recorded with electronic precision. It’s slinky rhythms no one has successfully recorded for decades. It’s something only Daft Punk could pull off. Random Access Memories pays homage to pop’s past while totally disregarding contemporary expectations.
There’s nothing objectively wrong with dance music, which is perhaps more popular now than it ever has been, as artists such as Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta rule charts and win hearts. But for every new artist and subgenre that emerges of electronic dance music – the catchall dance music term is now shortened to EDM – there is an argument, which Daft Punk shares, that the genre is getting stale.
The band’s chief co-conspirators, Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, have stripped the E from EDM to prove that just because they dress like robots doesn’t mean they need to sound like them. And so we have an album soaked in disco, all slinking guitar riffs and hi-hat flicks, flourishing synths and popping bass.
Daft Punk spent more than four years enlisting the album’s inspirations to perfect its sound. You can thank Chic’s Nile Rodgers for the bouncing guitars across tracks such as Get Lucky and Lose Yourself to Dance. And that Quincy Jones influence? That’s deliberate, and replicated as faithfully as possible with the use of session musicians such as drummer John (JR) Robinson, who played on the Jones-produced Michael Jackson album Off the Wall. One of the only tracks to feature programmed drums is Giorgio by Moroder , a nine-minute synth jam overlaid with a monologue by disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder on how he first approached music.
Consistent with Daft Punk history, vocal manipulation is laid on thick, but even the Vocoders’ execution is a means to an end: “Here, we were trying to make robotic voices sound the most human they’ve ever sounded, in terms of expressivity and emotion,” Bangalter told Rolling Stone. It’s a sharp contrast to the garbled robotics that chart toppers such as Skrillex feature on their tracks. (De Homem-Christo says he hasn’t even really listened to Skrillex, who coincidentally hadn’t yet been born when the chief inspirations for this album were recorded.)
Many of today’s mainstream EDM artists, such as Skrillex, came to the fore by producing larger-than-life sounds. With Random Access Memories , Daft Punk shows us that the sound of life itself is pretty great, too. There’s no reason these two approaches can’t coexist – they already have for a decade on a smaller scale, with the disco-punk bands like the Rapture, !!! and LCD Soundsystem – but if someone’s going to start a tectonic shift, it makes sense that it’s the duo that laid the foundation in the first place.
These shifts have happened before. After 20 years of inflating egos, hard rock’s bubble finally burst with the release of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II in September of 1991. It had grown too big, too rich, too saturated in excess (both in sound and attitude) to have any more sense of character. The week after the wildly anticipated pair of albums went for sale, Nirvana’s grunge classic Nevermind was released to the public. Within a couple years, Axl Rose found himself on the wrong side of music history.
Yes, it’s far too naive to argue that this is about to happen again, but there is at least one certain similarity here: Random Access Memories will show a new generation of musicians that it’s okay – no, it’s great – to make pop like this. Only Daft Punk could have pulled that off. Dance music, we’re learning again, is human after all.