I used to get sneered or laughed at for professing a love of Steely Dan. They all know. Nothing on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is so redolent of the 1970s-El-Lay-in-a-convertible vibe as “Fragments of Time”—a minor track on a maximalist album—but the approach Tomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo took, which is very much a throwback to the era of studious musicianship, permeates every moment of the album.
The signs are obvious and telling. The presence of session musicians who appeared on Thriller. The endorsement-via-occasional-fretwork from Nile Rodgers—one half of the disco hit machine Chic. The tacit foregrounding of guest stars, such as Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. Just as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew when to defer to the wisdom of the very best jazz musicians of their era, so do the French house duo (goodness, it feels reductive to label them as such anymore) take a backseat role from time to time, watching their creation unfurl like film directors.
It unfurls, and blossoms, and flourishes with a million orgiastic confetti-trails—when it absolutely has to. At other times, the album peddles a pretty relaxed aesthetic, as on much of the opener. “Give Life Back To Music” is a bold manifesto, but the delivery is subdued—bar the occasional guitar-and-synth swell. Daft Punk, and Rodgers, know when a few well-placed chucks of guitar can say just as much as a John Williams-sequence orchestral flourish. When those sweeping, gushing strings do make an entrance, as on “Touch”, they don’t steal from the song’s other engaging components. In the case of the eight-minute centrefold, there are intergalactic squiggles, a children’s choir, and Paul Williams’s elegiac crooning—and they all hold their own.
The other song with a bombastic orchestral arrangement is “Giorgio By Moroder”, and it might be the best song here. As you’ll well know, it features an oral history of the pioneering disco producer, narrated by the great man himself (and with each chapter recorded into a different era’s microphone). Look past the gimmickry of this; even dare to look past the craziness of the song’s structure (in its concluding passage, a drum solo from Omar Hakim does battle with disc-scratching and Guitar Hero-worthy tapping)—this is a song about Daft Punk lionizing the great ‘directors’ of music, who struggled and toiled till, eventually, their genius was appreciated. Moroder slept in the back of his car and borrowed a professor’s Moog modular; Becker and Fagen had to break free from the suburbs, and day-jobs as pop songwriters. So Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had to retire the samples and the drum machines, the cut-up vocals and the sequenced Van Halen. The vocoders remained, but little else.
Given the anticipation, the hype, and the terrifyingly slick marketing assault mounted by Columbia Records, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the wider impact of Random Access Memories. Daft Punk’s first two, iconoclastic albums spawned a thousand imitators, as did their totemic live performances atop a pyramid (consider how they ushered in the era of the globe-trotting, laptop-toting celebrity DJ). In both albums’ cases, the legacy subsumed memories of that which made the original great. Homework was loving pastiche from fanboys in their teenage bedrooms, but it begat monolithic slabs of artless house music. Discovery was delicately glam and nuanced, but what followed quickly grew monotonous and bereft of personality. For better or worse (but ultimately worse) the pop world’s string-pullers slavishly adopted Daft Punk’s poses. In the French pair’s near-six year absence, several banal trends in electronic music captivated pop music. First, there was the formulaic, tiresome dance music best exemplified by Tiesto. Then, there was the ineluctable rise of bro-step. Both are dreary, and don’t merit much description.
At Steely Dan’s zenith, copycats tried to apply the same slick arrangements to lesser material. No one had the wit or charm or chops to ape Becker and Fagen. The same arc will follow Random Access Memories. If it makes Madonna, or some other superstar, or at least their manager, look up and change course, we’ll have much to thank Daft Punk for. As the ubiquity of ”Get Lucky” on mainstream radio stations and at the dying hours of a thousand house-parties has shown, conventional tastes are fickle, sporadic and non-linear. The effect will only be transient, but might heal a few bleeding ears.
Of course, Steely Dan were more grounded in the society they lived in than Bangalter and de H.-C., neither hiding behind masks nor letting their songs escape into orbit. The themes addressed on Random Access Memories are universal—the power of love to overcome, the joy music brings to our lives—rather than socially provocative or analytical. But I challenge listeners to spend very long with the album before returning to its slickness and willingness to engage with genres deemed uncool—the Broadway musical (“Touch”), New Age piano (“Within”), world music (“Motherboard”). It’s in this respect that comparisons with Aja feel appropriate.
The closing track on Random Access Memories, “Contact”, is screamingly portentous, but the way it collapses in on itself rather than building to a colossal finale suggests Daft Punk have a well-cultivated sense of humour that’s sui generis. The first time I heard the song, I thought they were closing a chapter, not just on their career, but on the age of recorded music. It is a terminus, I proposed, after which no further musical journeys are possible. Repeated listens brought greater solace: it’s actually more of a sonic joke; like a shonky electronic experiment by Delia Derbyshire. Daft Punk sit atop the charts, however improbably, but they won’t sell millions—few auteurs do. But the most commercially viable aspects of their new groove will trickle down, in diluted form, to lowest common denominator pop music. And they’ll be chuckling about that, too.