A couple of weeks ago we were ushered into a wardrobe at Columbia Records, past the musty old coats and mothballs, past the ghosts of The Bloodhound Gang and The Ting Tings, and into a fabled land of vocoders, 303s and disco detritus of the last four decades. Once there we were played the new Daft Punk album and told we’d be freed in a fortnight.
Days on end without seeing friends or family aside, this was impossibly thrilling. Has any album been as hotly anticipated (and expertly hyped) as ‘Random Access Memories’? The slow release of collaborator names has kept the newswires fed for weeks, people faked their own versions of ‘Get Lucky’ because no one had the patience to wait for the full track, a 100-second advert for the single was worth a headline slot at Coachella – it’s been the sort of campaign that makes a giant polystyrene statue of Michael Jackson being towed down the Thames seem a failure of imagination.
So what’s ‘Random Access Memories’ like? It’s like this.
The manifesto’s clear from the opening seconds, a stupendously vast rock intro that obliterates any trace of ‘Human After All”s brittle techno. For the next nine-and-a-half minutes, fluid grooves trade places with this huge rock breakdown, mixing Chic funk with near-prog indulgence. And the robots – Thomas Bangalter and Guy Homem-Christo – are front and centre on the vocoders as the best party of the decade fans out behind them.
But first, a breather. Sad robots on the vocoders now – “You decided to walk away… I just wanted you to stay” – with treated guitars switching between wah-wah and slow disco licks. There’s serious Moogy vibration on the synth and even a trace of noodly jazz-funk that gets a free pass at this early stage. Still, it’s human after all rather than ‘Human After All’ as da Punk make good on their promise and get organic.
“I definitely wanted to become a musician…” – it’s electro/disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder and he’s delivering a monologue about how he became a legend. Over a cocktail party soundtrack (veering here and there through sharp cosmic disco), Moroder tells us how he used to sleep in his car as he went around the discotheques of Germany hatching a plan to make a record that drew on the sounds of the 50s, 60s, 70s and “THE FUTURE“. Well, he succeeded, didn’t he? In fact, “We put a click on the 24-track [cue click track]… and I knew that could be the sound of the future“. Everyone’s pretty much hugging themselves in delight at this point. Then, at about two minutes there’s a drop for Moroder to announce, “My name is Hansjörg Giovanni, but everyone calls me Giorgio” – and everything goes ape with seven minutes of techno odyssey that moves from squirty synth to lounge bar electric piano to circling strings to clattering breakbeats to jacking hip-hop before the bass bounces down comically to nothing. “There was no preconception of what to do,” Moroder remembers at one point, and that wide-eyed sense of freedom is coursing through the album.
Sad robot is back – “I am lost/I can’t even remember my name” – on a subtle, refined track that seems anything but from the grand Liberace chords at the start, but soon settles into a mood music of Fender Rhodes (that’ll be Chilly Gonzales), tapped beats and harmonising vocoder. We’re in a banger-breather-banger-breather loop.
And then ‘Random Access Memories’ changes tack entirely. It says here, “New wave electro, sounds a bit like The Strokes,” which is a dumb way of saying “I’ve forgotten Julian Casablancas is on this album”. But Casablancas has been consumed by the machine. It’s a cyber-Casablancas lamenting, “All I hear is the last thing you said” before being flattened by what past and future generations will call a Thin Lizzy guitar solo. And that’s nothing – the closing seconds turn into M’s ‘Pop Muzik’. There’s a creeping notion that every musical idea that’s ever been so much as thought up is on this album.
Disco flavours are back with some very Nile Rodgers guitar – no great mystery – and heavy, live beats. There’s an echo of Sister Sledge’s ‘Thinking Of You’ – again, surprise! – some vocodered “come on“s raising the roof and Pharrell Williams cooing over ‘Car Wash’ handclaps. Slower than ‘Get Lucky’, this one’s deep and fat.
And here’s where the kitchen sink got to. Co-written and performed by septuagenarian songwriter Paul Williams – who’s penned songs recorded by The Carpenters and David Bowie, and contributed classics to The Muppet Movie and Bugsy Malone soundtracks – ‘Touch’ was the first track sketched out for ‘Random Access Memories’ and the last to be finished. And no wonder. Its eight minutes and eighteen seconds begin with found sounds and electronic burbles, glissandos of synth and bursts of static, before emerging as a ballad somewhere between Noel Harrison’s ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’ and a battle-scarred lament from Les Miserables. That’s the first couple of minutes covered. Then it moves through disorientating phases encompassing Isaac Hayes wacka-wacka guitar, dreamy disco strings, chunky beats, honky-tonk piano, vaudeville horns, hints of Odyssey’s ‘Native New Yorker’, solar flares, laser blasts, choirs of angels and John Miles’ gout-inducingly indulgent Radio 2 stalwart ‘Music’. Bananas but magnificent.
No one was expecting this to sound ordinary, but after the outrageous genre-hopping of ‘Touch’ it’s an anchor into the earth. We’ve all heard ‘Get Lucky’ scores of times now, so let’s just say this is a couple of minutes longer than the single version, with an extended intro and an extra breakdown, and it’s downright sensible in this company.
The second Paul Williams contribution kicks off with refulgent strings and giant drums building towers of bombast before a robot leads us “to the land of love” on a schooner fashioned from reupholstered Warren G ‘Regulate’ grooves. If that doesn’t really sound seaworthy, there are cloudy synth arpeggios to keep it bobbing along.
This is like Four Tet with cash. Panpipes and waterfalls meet Innerzone Orchestra’s ‘Bug in The Bassbin’ on a journey into trip-hop’s more interesting recesses before cascades of warped synth and plump beats pull back to somewhere nearer Orbital. You get the picture – ambient wandering minstrel breakbeat.
Picture a triangle with Wings’ ‘Bluebird’ at one point, Steely Dan’s ultra-buffed blue-eyed funk at another and Cliff Richard’s 1979-81 resurgence at the third. ‘Fragments Of Time’ is pinging about within, achieving the improbable feat of not sounding like a cheese-burdened travesty. Todd Edwards – house producer and singer on ‘Discovery”s ‘Face To Face’ – is in there too, and he’s got a song in his heart. This is unfailingly adorable and bops like the theme to a 70s US sitcom.
There’s a Trojan Robot for a few seconds, then he opens his belly and out pops Panda Bear to sack the ancient city. ‘Doin’ It Right’ is how you imagined Daft Punk meets Animal Collective to sound – The Beach Boys gone digital. It’s twinkly, jumpy, synthy and straight outta leftfield.
Thomas and Guy-Man end the album the only way they can – throwing the full force of 40 years of dance music down upon our unprotected heads. ‘Contact”s all wide-eyed and sweet for a minute, with a sample of Gene Cernan (Apollo 17’s celebrated Last Man On The Moon) describing the wonders outside his visor, then… “I don’t know if you can see that far, but there’s something out there,” he finishes and suddenly there’s a flurry of Space-Odyssey monolithic synth as we make the leap into hyperspace. Mammoth beats thunder about with the gravitational pull of a collapsing star, take a breath for more doomy synth chords, then rush back with greater power. This cycle continues, with every element intensifying until the whole track’s a whistling kettle that no one’s taking off the hob. When it withdraws, it’s only for a second before it’s tearing strips off the time-space continuum until all Daft Punk can do is dissolve into white noise, the tatters of 21st century dance music strewn around their robot feet, vanquished.