Sasha Frere-Jones’ review of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories baffled many in the critic’s corner this week as he insisted that this album asks, “Does good music have to be good?” This is actually a very fitting koan for a duo whose consensus classic Discovery received low-to-middling marks from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, AV Club and Village Voice in 2001, narrowly beating out Macy Gray in that year’s Pazz & Jop poll in points even though Gray’s album had four more supporters.
Since then, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have released two other studio albums, Human After All which is savaged to this day, and Random Access Memories, which is released this day. It’s getting a mixed array of responses, which is odd. It’s a disco album, they agree on that, with a few theater pieces and suite-like formations boringly slotted as prog. Prog has surprise to it, whether it’s a screwy time signature or a monkey-wrench key change or some other unconventional defiance of pop formula. But none of the admittedly eclectic pilferings of Random Access Memories challenge or defy anything. They all evoke specific eras of film soundtrack or disco trend. The beats have grown less, not more, complex over time. They like it this way. A song like “Get Lucky” is no miracle; it’s not brought off by Pharrell’s uncomplicated voice or Nile Rodgers’ studied grooves. Giorgio Moroder’s not-disturbing voice is interviewed on the loving tribute “Giorgio by Moroder,” and the acted piece “Touch” gives away their real passion: being a soundtrack. It’s brought off because its stakes are incredibly low—wherein lies the rub.
Daft Punk fans are famously quick to get mad at Justice or Skrillex for burdening their fans with rock dreams, positioned as a direct affront to dance culture’s anonymity. From one old review: “Norman Cook’s Hawaiian shirts, Tom Rowlands’ yellow specs, Keith Flint’s bald-hawk and jackboots—all aspirational rockstar images that run counter to dance music’s needs by drowning it in nostalgia and making it difficult to locate in the here and now.”
I don’t really think most Daft Punk fans or even that reviewer would agree in 2013 that the Chemical Brothers’ sunglasses are more egotistical or arena-rock than Daft Punk’s robot helmets, but those helmets do give dance mavens their solution: dream DJs who can afford arena hullabaloo yet are so humble they reject having their faces shown, a total representation of Just the Music, Man. Daft Punk’s ego-free fun allows everyone to create their own party.
All this would be great if the music weren’t similarly too polite for repeat immersions. Grooves are supposed to have depth. Songs are supposed to have build. Something like “One More Time” may work great when mashed up and crisscrossed with three other tracks at a time on Daft Punk’s Alive 2007, surely their least limited and most unhedged bounty of pop signifiers (and hooks, I suppose). But otherwise I’ll take the constant slicing and dicing of Justice and Skrillex, who get tagged as rockists for simply not being minimalists. A song on RAM like “Motherboard” occasionally works deep in the background because it’s a musique concrete piece like something on the new Knife album. But “Get Lucky” is all surface, and it never leaves its four-chord box or builds tension like their best song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”
This isn’t a weak album, or one without ideas. It’s an eclectic, honest, grooveful, even thoughtful thing that takes every risk their fanbase could stomach (Panda Bear’s incredibly grating enunciation on “Doin’ It Right,” a completely unrecognizable Julian Casablancas elsewhere), with ace players, and no orgasms on the order of the Chemical Brothers’ “Private Psychedelic Reel,” Skrillex’s “Bangarang” or Justice’s “Canon,” the latter of which is from an album also called “prog.” It was meant as a diss. The latter two are viewed as barbaric for daring to include too many ideas to suss out in one listen. The former’s from a time when that was merely in vogue.
This is the hardest Daft Punk’s ever worked on an album, but their songwriting and programming skills aren’t up to the others. Their heart is big, but it ain’t witty, on such one-size-fits-all declarations like “Give Life Back to Music” and “The Game of Love.” On the album’s best, riskiest tune, Paul Williams of the duo’s beloved Phantom of the Paradise insists “you’ve given me too much to feel.” There’s just so much other music that’s past realizing “it’s OK to feel human now” as Panda Bear once sang. There’s plenty of disco with both soul and a brain. Random Access Memories has both, but it really makes too big a fuss of how long it took to arrive at that realization.