Few albums this year have been more eagerly awaited than Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, the French duo’s first studio album in eight years. A 15-second clip of the first single, “Get Lucky,” led to an avalanche of YouTube homages, loops, and remixes from fans desperate to make a meal from any bone Daft Punk tossed in their direction. “Get Lucky” was released in full last month, and the breezy, infectious disco hit seemed to be a good omen. But after the mountains of advance hype piled on Random Access Memories, the album itself—a wildly ambitious, slow-burning ’70s-style colossus that you can’t really dance to—came as a surprise. To some, it was a huge disappointment.
Random Access Memories is not a party record, to put it mildly. The album trades more in the tropes of limpid ’70s and ’80s soft rock and disco than it does in the more modern priorities of house and techno. Think moonlit drives in Los Angeles, palm trees, yacht rock, and windswept white beaches. Think Average White Band, the Doobie Brothers, Hall and Oates, and Fleetwood Mac. If that’s not your style, there’s an impressively grandiose ballad, “Touch,” that sounds like it could be in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Another song, with the teasing title “Giorgio by Moroder,” features legendary disco don Giorgio Moroder talking—talking!—about his long career.
Recent interviews with Daft Punk have been less than encouraging. Here they are, our guys Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, lounging by the pool in a fabulous house in Los Angeles, praising music made with “real musicians” and talking about how machines don’t have enough soul. For longtime fans of dance music, this sort of talk makes you queasy, uncomfortably echoing the rock guys who say “all techno sounds the same” and that “synthesizers aren’t real instruments.”
It almost felt as if Daft Punk, arguably dance music’s most famous ambassadors to mainstream culture, had betrayed us. Perhaps they had given up. Their 2005 album, the icy, brittle Human After All, was a letdown, and their 2010 film score for Tron: Legacy pointed to a more amorphous, less danceable direction. In a recent photo shoot, they posed artfully next to an 8-foot-high wall of flames—probably not breaking a sweat in glittering custom robot helmets and perfectly tailored sequined suits—reflecting the glamour and mythos of dance music while simultaneously distancing themselves from its present-day reality. But Random Access Memories makes more sense the more you listen. The impressive, absurdly expensive album—laced with orchestras, choirs, and big-time guest musicians (Nile Rodgers of Chic and Pharrell Williams, among others) is, oddly enough, the most Daft Punk album that Daft Punk has ever made.
Daft Punk’s penchant for soft rock and disco goes back to their earliest days. From the very beginning, they were voracious fans and consumers of old disco, funk, and rock records from the ’70s and ’80s, sampling bits of tunes by the likes of Barry Manilow, the Tavares, and Sister Sledge, and crunching them up into monster tracks that became quintessential Daft Punk hits.
On Random Access Memories, crafted almost entirely with “real instruments,” Daft Punk has taken its love for sampling to its logical, most literal conclusion. The duo best known for the sample-heavy dance music classics Discovery and Homework, for pumping out dance-floor anthem after anthem, has finally reached the next level—a level only accessible to those with access to million-dollar studios. In a way, Random Access Memories is “Teachers” writ large – the Daft Punk song from their 1997 debut, Homework, which name-checked a litany of their favorite musicians.