An Ode to Random Access Memories, Daft Punk's Last Album
Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories begins with an orchestrated power intro that reminds me of the first bars of “Easy Lover” by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins. The song continues with a throwback guitar jangle care of Nile Rodgers and the vocodered vocals that remind me I am listening to Daft Punk, over a live rhythm section that could easily have been arranged and recorded thirty years ago. The opening eclecticism is a signal that everything from here on out must be evaluated as a collection of signals and signs, recollected in the form of songs, carefully assembled to become an album.
How does an album of this sort—an album of ideas—hold together? The relevant question for these times, really, is: what is an album, anyway? The idea of a carefully conceptualized and precisely ordered collection of musical pieces that is greater than the sum of its parts is a largely forgotten one, best left appreciated by the dysfunctional fanboys and over-the-hill radio DJs who have been redundated or cloistered by the internet and digital media. After all, who has the time nowadays to listen to ten or twelve songs made by one artist through and through?
In one of a series of seven promotional videos (“The Collaborators”) featuring the various artists who worked with Daft Punk on RAM, Chilly Gonzales explains how he facilitates a key change between the first four tracks and the rest of the album with the piano-driven track “Within.” You really wouldn’t know it unless you were a musician or an enthusiast, and unless you listened to the whole thing in order.
While I’m listening to any one of the thirteen songs I can’t even tell you the title of the song that is playing. But that’s what it means to be listening to an album. Also, I can tell you where I am in the work and what memories are being accessed.
Collaborator Paul Williams is 72 years old. He also wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” and “The Rainbow Connection,” the go-to saccharine standards of my youth. This means he is a total stranger to much of the demographic that the album is aimed at. In the multi-episodic track “Touch,” Williams picks up on the introspective mood with a bespoke melody that yields, almost unwillingly, to the overriding vocoder chorus that sings “hold on, hold on, if love is the answer you’re home” before returning to the foreground with a parting verse, written in the same sick-sweet vein of yesteryear.
This is how I am always led to remember my youth, not by movie scenes or books, but by songs and by parts of songs. I sang to ABBA and played along with Paul Simon. I read the lyrics of The Beatles and The Smiths.
Memories of my poor but happy childhood notwithstanding, it is easy to see Paul Williams as a throwback element enlisted by auteurs for their own ultimately unknown ends. What is he there for? For sentimental reasons?
We will never know. It helps that, besides their constant use of the vocoder, Daft Punk hide their faces under full-face android masks, influenced by Michel Gondry’s video of their first big hit “Around the World” early in their career. It was an immediate way of positioning their music as the voice of the future, thus and dissolving any expectations about their music and distinguishing themselves in the scene. Even more directly, it was a way to hide; the masks are an affectation and a gimmick, but everyone also knows that one of the ironies of electronic dance music is that it has always been created by an industry of introverts and driven by an interior world. It is a medium of and for self-absorption.
The idea of a carefully conceptualized and precisely ordered collection of musical pieces that is greater than the sum of its parts is a largely forgotten one, best left appreciated by the dysfunctional fanboys and over-the-hill radio DJs who have been redundated or cloistered by the internet and digital media
With RAM, two more layers are added to the masks: a layer that allows us to see through the surface and witness how real instincts, memories and emotions have actually lain at the heart and the origins of dance music, and a mirror layer that coldly invites us to come to terms with our own memories and thought processes, even as we are invited to lose ourselves to dance—a mindless, automatic process in itself.
That’s part of the joke, of course. RAM is officially a dance album. The tropes of dance music all make their appearance. You’ve heard it all before, the guitar jangle that carries a melody, the rolling bass that slaps just when you thought it would forgo the cliché, the vocal harmony that rides with the chorus all the way to the end.
But here these parts take the stage here not so much as accepted tools and signals of the genre, but as their very origins themselves This is made clearer to current generations in the videos: in their respective spots, Giorgio Moroder recalls his synthesizer part in Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You” and “I Feel Love,” ex-Chic front man Nile Rodgers plays his licks producing and guesting for Duran Duran and David Bowie, and Panda Bear speaks about the role collaboration in the milieu of electronic dance music. But they’ve never been just guests. Moroder, Rodgers and Panda Bear are producers, and dance music is a producer’s medium.
The care and expense with which RAM was put together affirms this. It’s widely publicized that they spent US 1 million dollars on production expenses, including putting together an international A-list of collaborators and live sessionists and recording entirely on analog tape at legendary legacy studios in France and the United States. This is the sort of coming-to-terms and coming-of-age that can only happen with the money that comes with being a successful act in mid-career. The amount quoted above does not include the costs of a marketing campaign that includes full-sized billboards in the US and a tie-in with the Lotus Formula One team.
But that’s OK. And to some degree, that’s entirely the point. RAM is a poor little rich album that casts a melancholy gaze upon its own lost form, its own oblivious content and its own absurd context. Despite the videos that seem to demystify and overstate the production process—Chilly Gonzales actually physically demonstrates how he shifted from A-minor to B-flat minor and Todd Edwards discusses the logistics of the recording—the faceless robots really don’t care if nobody gets the references and the details, but by virtue of its roots and its inescapable commercial trajectory, it is compelled to make a disclosure anyway.
RAM is a sad album that casts a melancholy gaze upon its own form and its own substance. It doesn’t care if nobody gets the joke, but by virtue of its roots and its inescapable commercial trajectory, it is compelled to tell the joke anyway
The first band I was in recorded our one and only original song on 456 tape. It was ten hours straight from lay-in to mix-down. It was also my first encounter with energy drink, thanks to a stolid and impoverished engineer who wordlessly guzzled it all night while he watched us burn studio time making complete fools of ourselves.
This was also my first glance of the production side of music. We saw our song (our swansong, really) taken apart and salvaged for parts. It was also the eighties; our song contained all the requisite elements of our musical youth. Days later, as we all sat down to listen to it with fresh ears, I smoked a cigarette—one of the very first I had ever smoked—and saw my brief life in music flash very quickly before me.
Twenty-five years later, give or take, Daft Punk comes out with an album called Random Access Memories. In the song “Giorgio by Moroder,” synth/EDM pioneer Giorgio Moroder talks about his personal history, ending with: “Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So, nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.” The rest of the song gathers momentum on a superbly recorded and deftly mixed crescendo of strings, acoustic drums, rolling bass, synthesizers and arpeggiated rock guitar, and it’s the life of all music that flashes, randomly, before me.
This story originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Esquire Philippines Magazine.
Daft Punk has announced their split in the following YouTube video aptly titled "Epilogue."