Daft Punk's music has always come with an educational component. After all, their 1997 debut was called Homework and featured a track called "Teachers" that namechecked a slew of musicians ("...Brian Wilson / George Clinton / Lil Louis...") the duo loved—and wanted fans to love as well. Their 2001 follow-up kept with the theme, right down to its title, Discovery. The guys behind gleeful dancefloor hits like "One More Time," "Da Funk," and "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" have even talked about their aspirations towards infotainment: "Homework, we did it, and it was a way to say to the rock kids, like, 'Electronic music is cool,'" Thomas Bangalter recently told GQ. "Discovery was the opposite, of saying to the electronic kids, 'Rock is cool, you know? You can like that.'"
The lesson of their latest, then, seems obvious. The insane hype surrounding the release of Random Access Memories, their fourth non-soundtrack album and their first in eight years, proves that they've grabbed the undivided attentions of the rock kids and the electronic kids. Now, they want to show those kids that the schmaltzy disco, intricate prog, and quivery soft rock of decades past is cool too. To do that, the duo largely ditched computers and samplers. They recruited the musicians that made some of the most influential records of the '70s and '80s, the likes of Chic's Nile Rodgers and Michael Jackson's Thriller and Off the Wall session players (plus newer stars like Julian Casablancas and Pharrell Williams to help out on vocals). And they recorded a lush, pristine, largely analog vision of the past.
The result: beautiful songs. That's beautiful in the most literal sense, where sensory experience outranks songwriting or danceability. The jazzy, flute-laden "Motherboard," the Magnificent Seven-theme-aping violins of "Beyond," the spiraling-out rock charge of "Contact," the multi-suite choral pomp of "Touch": All convincingly explain why Daft Punk have spent their press tour for this album talking about the limits of computerized music. As Bangalter told The New York Times ("knocking over his drink in his excitement"), live instrumentation offers "an infinity of nuance, in the shuffles and the grooves... These things are impossible to create with machines."
One obvious machine element remains, though. Bangalter and/or Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (they won't say who's on vocal duties on at any given time) keep the robots-with-a-heart routine going, singing through a vocoder about yearning to live and love. On the slower, gooier songs, like "The Game of Love" and "Within," that once-cute shtick comes off as nearly unlistenable parody. Elsewhere, though, as on the mid-album high points of "Lose Yourself to Dance" and "Get Lucky"—both featuring the Neptunes' Williams, both built on Rodgers's hypnotic funk-guitar riffs, both among the few tracks that will get people moving—the bots' voices add nice, fizzy hooks to the mix. But beyond the younger guest musicians' featured, that's the only recognizably of-the-moment ingredient here... though, come to think of it, bands have been making their vocals sound synthesized for decades.
Within Random Access Memories' lesson about the virtues of the past and of analog, though, there's another lesson. Three songs in, electronic-music pioneer Giorgio Moroder delivers a lecture in the history of the genre he helped found. Forty years ago, he says, he was looking to record an album with "the sound of the '50s, the sound of the '60s, of the '70s, and then have a sound of the future." To get that sound of the future, he paired a synthesizer with a click track, resulting in a combination that would shape music from Donna Summers's "I Feel Love" up through, well, Daft Punk.
Disco, prog—these were once the sounds of the future. So was Daft Punk.
That Moroder monologue helps remind the listener that all of these musicians that Daft Punk worship so openly didn't merely engaged in genre exercises. Disco, prog—these once were the sounds of the future. They came out of creative visionaries straining to imagine how music could move forward, and in the process, actually managing to move music forward.
Daft Punk used to be in that class. Their first three albums (their first two especially) helped widen the sound of pop music by melding dance, rock, funk, and hip hop in high-energy, irresistibly kitschy, and, importantly, novel ways. Today's hitmakers draw liberally from that legacy, and many regularly shout out Daft Punk as big influences.
If Random Access Memory influences anyone, it'll be to learn more about its legendary collaborators... and to crave the financial resources to make an album that sounds as sparkly as this one does. Maybe innovation will result. But it won't come from Daft Punk themselves. That's a bit disappointing on the first few listens, but it's also fair: Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have no obligation to do anything other than make the kind of songs they want to make, and what they chose to make this time is intermittently spectacular. Even though it's been eight years since the duo's last proper release, it's better to think of Random Access Memories not as a comeback, but as a retirement of sorts—a signal that, for now, Daft Punk aren't interested in teaching you something new.