Like most every other album released after an uncertain and extended period of inactivity (a recent example can be found here), Random Access Memories was met with a wave of overly romantic reviews (read my post-script) from people who haven’t heard anything like “One More Time” since “One More Time” or want to be more immersed in Parisian culture after memorizing every word to their National Anthem. Yeah, it’s their best album since Discovery, but that’s just a bigger way of expressing the real truth: it’s their only album since Discovery (not counting their live album or soundtrack, because really, does anyone remember Human After All, aside from “Technologic?”). The short version is that Random Access Memories is a solid album, comprised of just enough tracks of what Daft Punk is good at (fun stuff for people to have fun to), but unfortunately marred by—ahem—daft decisions.
For one thing, you could literally play this album through shuffle and it’ll sound the same. When the 9-minute “Giorgio by Moroder” comes to a close through its gentle pops, I expect it to lead into the next track, not to just outrightly die once “Within” starts (I guess Radiohead’s beeps from “Airbag” to “Paranoid Android” has spoiled me). If you’re going to extend your already long enough song ever-so-slightly with a however-brief coda, you better make sure it’s damned worth it. Not to mention the fact that a ballad like “Within” after the building momentum of its preceding three tracks is as smooth as sitting in the car of a first-time driver who slams on the brakes to narrowly avoid the STOP sign he almost didn’t see. “Within” has more problems than just its ballad structure, though. The robotic vocals take center stage (as opposed to juxtaposing Pharrell’s vocals in either of “Lose Yourself to Dance” or “Get Lucky”) and with its relatively sparser structure, there’s nothing to hide the fact that “Man, these vocals sound annoying sometimes.” The reverb don’t help. Quite the opposite, actually.
Both the album’s longest tracks, “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Touch” are the album’s problems condensed into track-form. The former stops-starts with those rather annoying spoken word bits (though thankfully not as bad as some people have made it out to be, though I suspect that might be because of my fondness for French accents, “I am ze tired” and all that). Meanwhile, the latter packs several different ideas into a single song without a single transition to help it at all. When they finally settle on a hook, the choired “Hold on if love is the answer” building up and building up gloriously, they utterly bomb it by stopping it completely at the 7:40 mark (again, a stop so grating it causes whiplash), that’s followed by a ridiculous monologue that reminds me of Barney Stinson pretending to be a robot learning to love. Except there’s no humour here. It’s grandiose, rather than grand. The differences, if you’re wondering, as offered by Google , is that both are magnificent, but the former is “pretentiously so.” Remove both of these tracks, and we’d have a near-hour long of fun stuff for people to have fun to, instead of fun stuff pretending to be more than fun stuff.
But there’s good to be found, and quite a bit of it (thank God, because this thing runs for 75 fucking minutes). One of the main differences, other than drawing on 70’s prog and disco, is they pull in a large amount of guest/brand names, the ones that cause wetdreams in music lovers. For the most part, these new vocals provide pockets of fresh air to the record, although sometimes they seem to be of the “We have a guest feature on this song because we know you love them and we wanted you to listen to this song” variety. By this, I mean “Doin’ It Right,” which sounds like any Panda Bear track, with his penchant of slow-chant, that happens to feature Daft Punk, not the other way around (still catchy, but the collaboration just doesn’t feel natural). But elsewhere, they adeptly inject life into a robotic Julian Casablancas by ironically making him sound more robotic (though no reason “Instant Crush” needed to be almost 6 minutes long) and Pharrell sounds damn seductive on both “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky” which get added to the long list of Daft Punk earcandies. Meanwhile, opener “Give Life Back to Music” and closer “Contact” manage to be grand, not grandiose. The former is as theatrical as you’d hope an opener to a comeback album to be, and the latter featuring a crescendo that makes it sound like you’re accelerating (cruising on the highway or launching into space) – 6 minutes that feels like 4.
PS: romantic reviews, as in both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone manage to namedrop The Dark Side of the Moon of all fucking things to compare this album to. But Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson only does so to make a point of Random Access Memories’ high fidelity. Will Hermes, from the latter, offers that “There’s a narrative here, too […] a story that suggests cyborgs striving to be human” (there isn’t) and then follows it up with “– pretty much the story of all of us these days,” which causes me to slowly bury my face in my hands and weep. If you want a good story about a “cyborg striving to be human,” go listen to “Digital Love.”