Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ Anniversary Edition Is a Reappraisal and Reaffirmation of Its Genius: Album Review
When Daft Punk launched its fourth and presumably final mission statement, “Random Access Memories,” into the atmosphere 10 long years ago, it was greeted with the kind of genre- and generation-spanning adulation that’s rare in any art form. At the time of its release, the supernova of cool around Daft Punk was so pervasive — and the hits from the album, particularly “Get Lucky,” were so ubiquitous — that it topped charts all around the world, won five Grammys (including album of the year and best-engineered album) and got a whopping 8.8 score from Pitchfork, a publication that played no small role in the longrunning French duo’s rise.
Yet it was a drastic about-face for the pioneering duo, whose electronic and dance music of the previous 15-odd years had spawned countless influencees, and whose world-shaking 2006-7 tour basically spawned EDM. Fans expecting another electronic masterpiece instead they got a deliberately retro album that intentionally used the technology and recording techniques of the ‘70s and ‘80s to evoke the pristine, perfectionist grooves of Michael Jackson, Chic, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac and others — and even unfurled a yacht-rock flag on “Fragments of Time.” It has orchestras, choirs and a battery of top-notch musicians including pioneering Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, virtuoso bassist Nathan East, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz and powerhouse drummer Omar Hakim. There are guitar solos, tinkling electric pianos, ‘70s funk bass, piledriving drums and even acoustic guitars. Bored with electronics, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter “wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers, but with people,” the latter said.
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For all its success and adulation at the time, “Random Access Memories” — which is re-released today in a lavish 10th anniversary edition, with a fascinating 35-minute companion album of previously unreleased material — is a challenging and often-contrarian album, and viewed outside of the heat of the moment of its arrival, those factors have become clearer (as part of a sort of revisionist history, Pitchfork recently revised its score down to a 6.8). Objectively, it plods in places, and even more objectively, some of the collaborators and how they were utilized seemed to have been based on whimsical if not perverse reasons: Daft Punk could have worked with virtually any vocalist on earth they’d wanted — Adele, Bjork, Celia Bartoli, Tuvan throat singers — but true to their quintessentially French nature, they defied expectations and chose Pharrell (known more as a producer than a singer), septuagenarian Paul Williams (known more as a songwriter), the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas (with his voice almost unrecognizably autotuned), Todd Edwards (yachts ahoy!) and the duo themselves singing through a vintage ‘70s vocoder, with only Animal Collective’s Panda Bear rating as a truly great, if eccentric singer.
And the challenges weren’t limited to the vocalists. The album opens with a garish instrumental fanfare reminiscent of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” They brought in dance-music visionary Giorgio Moroder — who’d masterminded Donna Summer’s classic hits — not for anything conventionally musical but for an autobiographical spoken-word segment. A song called “Lose Yourself to Dance” has a slow, thudding rhythm that’s almost impossible to dance to. Many of the album’s greatest moments are instrumental.
But despite the second-guessing and occasional skippable moments, the album’s genius shines through now more than ever. Over four years and a million dollars in the making — the duo paid for the recording themselves, guaranteeing their full autonomy — it is unquestionably brilliant and filled with some of the most beautiful, exciting and emotional music of its time. It presents a different perspective on the mathematical melodicism and repetition of the duo’s best electronic music — equally influenced by Bach and Phillip Glass — but with organic instruments and orchestras and choirs playing with near-flawless precision, crispness and technical expertise; the Grammys do not award best-engineered album lightly. Several songs have multiple chapters, particularly the album’s centerpiece, the Paul Willams-sung “Touch,” which has a breathtakingly beautiful middle section starring the orchestra and choir; the instrumental closer, “Contact,” is one of the most exciting songs I’ve ever heard in my life, largely due to Hakim’s sprinting drums.
Most of all, “Random Access Memories” is unquestionably the album the duo wanted to make — which often seems to be left out of the revisionism issue, although it should be at the center of it. For all the righteous ranting in our culture about artistic expression, how often do the fans, rather than record labels or managers, try to influence or even control the art? Isn’t it worth letting the artist lead, meeting them where they are and forgiving the parts you don’t like and focusing on the ones that you do? Does anyone expect Quentin Tarantino’s films to move quickly? I have always hated ABBA’s often-insipid lyrics and the lifeless singing of New Order’s Bernard Sumner, but their music and songs are so glorious that it becomes either an acquired taste or something you just accept, like seeds in a delicious piece of fruit.
All of the above is thrown into even more dramatic relief by this deluxe edition’s bonus tracks, which create a very satisfying album on their own, even though they’re the scree of “RAM”: unfinished instrumentals, alternate arrangements, composites of unused parts or even isolated elements, like choirs or orchestras (the gorgeous middle section of “Touch” is now its own song). While that description makes it sound like a random collection of castoffs, it’s not: Since most of the music is instrumental, in some ways it’s a less frustrating listening experience than the main album can be — some of the music is so beautiful and sophisticated that vocals are just clutter.
There’s an alternate version of “Lose Yourself to Dance” with a thundering bassline and some absolutely hilarious vocoder freestyling from the duo; there’s a brief, very funky different take of “Get Lucky.” There’s a stunning instrumental version of the album’s opener, “Give Life Back to Music,” with stellar piano soloing from Chilly Gonzales; and a rough demo of a great unreleased Casablancas collaboration called “Infinity Repeating.” There’s the sweeping instrumental “Horizon,” a rare Japan-only bonus track (I guess Japan-only CD bonus tracks were still a thing in 2013); and a stirring, unfinished orchestra-funk song called “Prime” that’s desperate for a film to soundtrack. There’s an art-as-it-happens, Beatles-reissue-ish version of “Fragments of Time” where you hear the duo and Edwards talking through ideas for the song. The set closes with that stunning orchestra-and-choir segment of “Touch” — which soundtracked “Epilogue,” the duo’s farewell video where they announced their split in 2021 — and leaves the listener with what may be Daft Punk’s final message: a circular lyric with a meaning that changes depending on where you come in. Is it “Hold on, if love is the answer, you’re home,” or “You’re home, hold on, if love is the answer” — and what does either of them mean anyway? Exactly.
(A full track-by-track description, courtesy of Legacy Records, appears below.)
Every supernova has a snap-back, a reassessment, before the more-or-less final verdict settles in. This edition of “Random Access Memories” not only presents the album’s brilliance and flaws in a more dramatic light, it does so with the added context of the sketches, treatments and abandoned experiments that helped make it what it is — one of the greatest albums by one of the most important and influential artists of its era.
This first outtake opens with vocals by a childrens’ choir that leads into an instrumental track. This set of tracks is bookended by childrens’ choirs, as the last track in the set, “Touch Epilogue” also contains childrens’ voices. The bookending creates a mirror that emphasizes some of the main themes of this record : future nostalgia, repetition loop and infinity.
“Horizon” originally appeared exclusively on the Japanese CD version of Random Access Memories, as a bonus track and has been discovered by fans in the years since release. As the final track on the 2013 Japanese version of the album, “Horizon” gave listeners a gentle, symphonic, peaceful ending to the album. This is its first official global release.
GLBTM (Studio Outtakes):
This track is composed of outtakes from “Give Life Back To Music” recording sessions with little-to-no production, and showcases Daft Punk’s experimentation, their energy and what styles they were exploring at the time. It sounds like a jam session, but can be viewed as a research record – listeners can hear multiple inspirations, multiple directions, and multiple versions of what the song could have evolved into.
Infinity Repeating (2013 Demo):
The idea of infinity is at the creative core of this album, and is emphasized in this track. Recorded for the original album, “Infinity Repeating” brings back vocals from Julian Casablancas, who also collaborated on “Instant Crush.” Based on an infinity loop, the progression and lyrics to this track will make it echo infinitely. The concept of an infinity loop will also be reflected in the official music video as an epic ascension through human history and fate.
GL (Early Take):
This 32 second snippet of what would eventually become a Record of the Year Grammy winner is made up of studio outtakes, some cuts, studio sessions and first tests. It gives a quick glimpse into the makings of the iconic track.
Prime (2012 unfinished):
Daft Punk started work on “Random Access Memories” in 2008, but the project was put on pause when the opportunity to work on the Tron soundtrack presented itself. After the project was released in 2010, the focus turned back to “RAM.” This track, “Prime (Unfinished)” is emblematic of the time – the unfinished track shows another facet of the creative process and how some works can fall to the side along the way.
LYTD (Vocoder Tests):
On this track, listeners get a peek behind the curtain of one of Daft Punk’s signature sounds, the robot voices. Stripping the layers away, listeners hear human voices behind the vocoders, the vocoders that are used to create robot voices. They hear the robots that are looking for themselves, and the humans behind them.
The Writing Of Fragments Of Time:
Part musical track, part documentary, this track captures a foundational songwriting moment between Thomas Bangalter and Todd Edwards. With the track production finished by Guy-Manuel de Homen-Christo, Todd joins Thomas in the studio to pen the lyrics and come up with the top line melody. The curtain is pulled and the listener witnesses the very moment they come up with the defining melody and lyrics of the song – a first-ever experience with the humans behind the impenetrable robots. The track “Fragments of Time” was foundational to Random Access Memories, in which Todd Edwards (the only artist that worked twice on Daft Punk’s album) sings optimistically about how they will all feel in 10 years. “The Writing of Fragments of Time” is a dream within a dream, exploring future nostalgia, anticipation and inception, like a Russian doll. It’s a “making of” within the “making of.” Ten years after it was created, its release closes the gap of the lyrical message of the song (how will we feel in 10 years?). It’s also a dissociation from the robots, in the prism of a band who is no more.
Touch (2021 Epilogue):
This version of “Touch” was used as the soundtrack to Daft Punk’s Epilogue video, the video that announced the end of the band, posted on February 22, 2021. While the original version of the track features vocals from Paul Williams, this version has only vocals from a children’s choir repeating the lyrics “You’re home, hold on, if love is the answer,” again showcasing the core album themes of infinity and repetition loop.
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