Random Access Memories
(Daft Life/Columbia; 2013)
By Adam Downer | 11 July 2013
Perhaps no other album in 2013 sums itself up better than Random Access Memories when, on “Lose Yourself to Dance,” that Daft Punk-trademarked robot voice repeats “come on, come on, come on, come on!” with increasing insistence. Because Random Access Memories could have been so good: billed as a lush, live-instrument homage to ’70s schmaltz and teased by the now ubiquitous “Get Lucky,” all signs pointed to a great, silly, nostalgic dance party. And we do get that, sort of. Random Access Memories more than meets its quotient of killer bass licks, big synth hooks, groovy horns, strings, wah-wah guitars, and children’s choirs. But right when it’s getting good—and I mean really, “lose yourself to dance” good—and you’re mentally screaming, “come on, come on, come on, COME ON!”, the groove just kind of, well, keeps on keepin’ on. All the air Daft Punk’s blown into their party balloons escapes, leaving behind a big wet fart noise and a forgiving, disappointed shrug in its wake.
Random Access Memories is like a guitar plugged into an amp where the volume doesn’t go higher than seven. This makes for great foreplay (see: the verses and buildups in “Instant Crush,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Give Life Back to Music”) but less-than-fulfilling main events (see: the climaxes in all of those songs). This in itself isn’t necessarily bad, of course; but given how oddly reserved these songs are, especially when their conceit entitles them to kitchen-sink indulgence, it does leave a nagging sense of yearning for the extravagant record just beyond its grasp.
Look at “Touch,” which, as it quotes liberally from the pop-disco musical circa Rice/Lloyd Webber, should by all rights be a delicious dollop of ’70s glitz. It almost is. The song has three neat ideas: bookending vocal parts from hall-of-fame songwriter Paul Williams, a dance-floor jam in the middle, and a swelling children’s choir singing a lovely, sentimental cliché (“If love is the answer you’ll hold, hold on”). These ingredients certainly make “Touch” one of the highlights of Random Access Memories, if not the lynchpin, and yet the ideas all feel stunted, even within the roomy confines of a six-minute pop tune. The jam section goes for a swift forty-five seconds—hardly enough time to truly lock into a boogie—making the abrupt transition into the slow-burning climax feel almost purposefully inorganic. The choir in this section is tempered by heavy reverb and low-mixing that makes it sound far away, as if it were being transmitted from the past it’s aping. Before the section reaches an apex, however, it too cuts off abruptly. Williams returns to sink his teeth into the lyric, “Touch, sweet touch, you’ve almost convinced me I’m real,” and the song ends a tantalizing and effectively post-modern subversion of what we expect a song of its nature to do. A statement on the limitations of homage, perhaps? Maybe; Williams’ lyrics make him sound like an older man trying and nearly succeeding to recall bygone music, and perhaps that’s why the middle sections feel somewhat underdeveloped. Still, while reading the track this way makes it kind of sweet, the thought of what the song could have been had it really committed to delivering the pop ecstasy it recalls makes it feel like a set of parts with a sum that’s not as impressive as it should be. B-B+? I need something more.
It’s almost as if the record’s afraid to really dig into the cheese it’s culling. Or maybe it’s digging too deep. Nostalgia by nature elides the parts of the past that weren’t so hot, but on Random Access Memories it’s almost as though Daft Punk were committed to evoking the ’70s albums they loved with the warts and all. At least two long stretches are flat-out dull, and both feature the tracks I’d consider the most dated. “Giorgio by Moroder” is the worst offender: there’s little impetus to give Giorgio’s “started at the bottom, discovered the synth, now we here” monologue multiple listens after you get the gist of it, and it doesn’t help that it adds to the tune the same sort of significance an audio tour at a museum might give you about a painting. Not that there’s much to illuminate: a straight-ahead synth lick, moog noodling, and a neat drum and bass breakdown, all clocking in at an endless nine-minutes. Worse, it’s sandwiched between the almost strikingly sleepy “The Game of Love” and “Within.” There’s an almost symmetrical stretch on side B from “Beyond” to “Fragments of Time,” possibly longer depending on how you feel about the Panda Bear collab “Doin’ it Right” (I’m for it, but I can see why one wouldn’t be down for that tk-tk-tk-tk metronome of a beat and Noah Lennox almost spoofing Panda Bear). It’s less tedious than the first half’s lull, but the section’s lightly groovy soft-rock serves mostly to fill the space as innocuously as possible until “Contact.”
Now “Contact,” that’s a jam. Fronted by a space transmission confirming “there is something out there,” the song takes off like a rocket and looms large over the preceding record. After an album of looking lovingly backwards from a vantage point in the present, “Contact” looks forward from the past. It’s a song that captures the wide-eyed wonder of the space age and, propelled by an engine hiss of increasingly high pitch, flies back through three or four decades of music to the current era. This shift in perspective makes for a rare moment where Random Access Memories isn’t playing like an antique; it makes connection whereas other songs play from behind a glass case. I suspect “Get Lucky” is such an astronomical success for a similar reason: it nails the elements that made the genre it’s paying homage to timeless, and goddamn if it isn’t one of the year’s catchiest, still, some three months later.
These two tracks sound fully realized and current on an album so reserved and committed to hindsight, and Random Access Memories would’ve been phenomenal if Daft Punk had chosen to tread those lines more often. As a record standing almost entirely on nostalgia, sure, it gives schmaltzy ’70s dance music a fine, not-sacrilegious update and sets it to a pleasant neon glow, but it’s a trip through history that’s almost more educational than immersive. That doesn’t make it a lousy record—far from it—but it does make it feel like a well-done themed party: escapist fun, but still only an approximation of the concept, unable to truly shake the world its trying to escape from.