Imagine you are Daft Punk, perhaps the only musical act in history whose cultural profile actually rose in the wake of their weakest and least-popular studio album, 2005′s Human After All. You wrote and directed your own experimental feature film, 2006′s Electroma; toured the world to great acclaim in 2006 and ’07; got sampled in a smash 2007 Kanye West single “Stronger;” and composed a soundtrack for 2010′s Tron: Legacy. But somehow all this has been dwarfed by years of speculation over what you’ll do next, as if the world had been seduced by your faceless robot image into believing that you are actual super heroes. Rising to the challenge, you then spend years on a magnum opus in which the implicit goal revealed by numerous pre-release interviews with collaborators both big and small is to fulfill the purpose of the album’s first song: Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have aimed to do nothing less than to “Give Life Back to Music.”
Random Access Memories is a concept album in which these would-be androids take it upon themselves to restore humanity to the music scene they themselves helped make more mechanical. Recorded with veteran session musicians whose résumés include Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller, an insanely idiosyncratic cross-generational pack of co-writers spanning from Paul Williams (who wrote for the Carpenters and the Muppets) to Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, and absolutely massive symphonic orchestration, the French duo counter the automation of today’s EDM and, indeed, their own back catalog, by filling the album with what collaborator Nile Rodgers terms “one-time-only events.” True to Daft Punk form, there is repetition on this album, but more importantly there is constant subtle variation: Listen closely and you’ll hear all sorts of accents, complications and improvisations impossible to achieve through the pair’s previous methods.
In doing so, Daft Punk get far closer to replicating decidedly non-punk forms of the ’70s and early ’80s — disco, progressive rock, jazz-funk and West Coast studio pop — than most 21st-century musicians have ever dared. Absolutely none of it is what has traditionally been considered cool, and that’s precisely the point: RAM is instead focused on warmth, sunshine, good times, intimacy and sweaty shared body heat. There is solitude and melancholy as well, voiced through vocoders and Williams himself, who in the shamelessly grand “Touch” plays the part of a robot who craves the reality of physical sensation. Segueing from gurgling synths to piano pop to disco to choral and symphonic pomp and back again, this multi-part epic holds the album’s theme: Even androids long for life.
That they’ve rediscovered old-fashioned studio craft in an era when it’s grown cost-prohibitive makes RAM even more quixotic, as if they invested their entire Disney commission and then some on the aesthetic antithesis of Human After All‘s hasty bluntness. Every genre they touch is pushed to the hilt: The club tracks featuring Rodgers shredding on rhythm guitar, “Give Life Back to Music,” “Lose Yourself to Dance” and the single “Get Lucky” are all really, really disco, as if the duo aimed to reanimate the musician’s late cohorts in Chic. The synth riff that runs through “Giorgio by Moroder” — a lavish, ever-shifting number featuring Giorgio Moroder’s spoken autobiography of how he fathered EDM through his pioneering synthetic 1977 production of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” — evokes two electronic disco milestones: Moroder’s “Chase” theme for Midnight Express and Cerrone’s similarly futuristic “Supernature.” “Instant Crush” may feature the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, but its chugging guitars are eerily reminiscent of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky,” one of prog-rock’s final hits. And Todd Edwards, known for emphatically sampled underground house, helps them nail the Toto-esque pop of “Fragments of Time” with a riff that recalls the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes.”
By paraphrasing, recombining, and expanding upon the sophisticated sounds of their childhoods, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo mature their own music exponentially. On every level — songwriting, arrangements, production, engineering and particularly mood — the duo generate infinitely more complex and finessed results precisely because they never regard the music that was typically reviled by the critics of the time and is still today thought of as “cheesy,” the witheringly condescending adjective that’s become omnipresent in an Internet age when everyone’s a critic. Instead, they render disco, prog and soft pop via the wonder with which they originally perceived them, blissfully unaware of their un-hip-ness in much of the adult world they would eventually reign as icons of hip. Through that wide-eyed innocence, they’ve achieved the alchemy of love.