Here they’ve “sampled” the vintage production of their favorite records, using the same analog equipment, techniques, and musicians. Instead of sampling Chic, they brought in Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers to play guitar on two tracks. Instead of sampling Quincy Jones’ productions for Michael Jackson in the 1980s, they brought in the actual session musicians who played on the albums—including John J.R. Robinson, a drummer on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, and the guitarist Paul Jackson, who played on Thriller. They’ve “sampled” the clothes, too (Daft Punk’s tight sequined jackets resemble Michael Jackson’s) and the fonts (the cursive lettering on the cover of Random Access Memories resembles the cover of Thriller). Daft Punk even “sampled” their favorite movie—the 1974 Brian De Palma schlock classic Phantom of the Paradise—by inviting in Paul Williams, the movie’s composer and lead actor, to sing the album’s epic, melodramatic centerpiece, “Touch.”
Phantom of the Paradise is key to understanding Daft Punk’s aesthetic. In the movie, a nerdy songwriter is reborn as a phantom who attempts to exact revenge on an evil svengali record producer named Swan. In one scene in the movie, Swan traps the phantom—now wearing a tight black leather jacket and a robot helmet—in a sophisticated recording studio walled with racks of analog gear. The phantom, whose vocal cords have been destroyed, speaks through a talk box attached to his chest, sounding remarkably like a vocodered lyric in a Daft Punk song.
It’s easy to see why the rock opera was catnip for Daft Punk, who claim to have watched it more than 20 times—the movie is completely over-the-top, drenched in pathos, and layered with in-jokes and sideways references, much like the band’s music. Daft Punk’s black leather outfits in their 2006 feature film, Electroma, seemed inspired by the phantom. “Electroma is a combination of all the movies we like, paying a big, almost unconscious homage to them,” de Homem-Christo told Stop Smiling in 2008. “There are so many different influences: In the end, it becomes such a melting pot of everything that it resembles something else altogether. We love cinema the same way we do music—we’re from a generation that doesn’t segregate.”
“Touch” is the apex of Random Access Memories, the total realization of the album’s ambitious reach. There’s nothing cool about it, and it takes guts to make music like this in 2013 on such a grand scale. It’s Daft Punk’s love letter to Phantom of the Paradise, and it’s schmaltzy and deeply weird. The lyrics are, well, daft (“Touch, sweet touch/ You’ve given me too much to feel”), but the lyrics are beside the point; Williams’ graceful vocal delivery is awe-inspiring. It’s simultaneously melancholy and uplifting; the moment where Williams’ voice trails off and “Get Lucky” begins is a great moment in pop music.
Unlike, say, LCD Soundsystem—a band that also wore its influences on its sleeve—Daft Punk is doing all of this without a trace of irony. In “Giorgio by Moroder,” the duo records the storied disco producer speaking seriously about his life and work through three different microphones—each from a different era—before launching into a by-the-numbers Moroder disco homage. It’s so painfully literalist and earnest that you almost can’t help but laugh. Daft Punk’s best music has always been about unabashed sentimentality—the over-the-top exuberance of “One More Time,” the wide-eyed, dewy emotionalism of “Digital Love.” In 2013, after years of fashionably ironic retro dance-rock, it’s a relief to hear retro-sounding music that sounds this sincere.
Random Access Memories includes contemporaries, too—indie-rock musicians like Panda Bear and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, and longtime Daft Punk collaborators such as Todd Edwards and DJ Falcon. But Random Access Memories is more than a mishmash of its various collaborators and influences; it all sounds like Daft Punk. The moment midway through “Get Lucky”, when Pharrell’s vocals drop out and the robots take over, is the best moment of the song. The album is an artistic statement as goofy and overblown as it is courageous and charming, a total coherent synthesis of all things Daft Punk past and present. Random Access Memories is, in its own crazy way, a triumph.