I freely admit that, until the new Random Access Memories, I wasn't much of a Daft Punk fan. I could appreciate the craft and imagination that went into creating the French duo's mixture of electronic genres — techno, house, disco — but the mechanical repetitions and heavily filtered vocals didn't turn me on in any other way.
But now, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have come up with an album that exposes the human side of their musical impulses. It's the equivalent of removing the helmet-masks the pair invariably wears in public performances. Random Access Memories is a collection filled with music that suggests mad romance, heartache and an embrace of the past that's never merely nostalgic or sentimental.
"Get Lucky," the album's superb first single, features lead vocals from Pharrell Williams and guitar work by Nile Rodgers, who co-founded the great disco band Chic in the '70s. The rhythm of "Get Lucky" is lushly irresistible and a perfect example of what seems to have struck Daft Punk's members, now in their late 30s, as a revelation: After years of constructing their music by sampling bits of other artists' beats and riffs, using technology to strip dance music down to its essence, they want to build their sound back up with fresh humanity. They do it by largely avoiding samples on Random Access Memories, having Rodgers and others play real guitars and inviting other, non-mechanized voices to do some of the vocal work. These collaborators range from Pharrell to Paul Williams — yes, the Paul Williams who wrote '70s hits such as The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun."
One of my favorite cuts on the album is "Fragments of Time," which features a vocal by Todd Edwards and sounds a little like vintage Steely Dan, sleek and serenely clever. "Turning our days into melodies," goes a line in that Daft Punk track, and it's this new desire to create songs that you and I could sing along to — to maintain the intensity and rhythms of dance music while letting it take a human breath — that gives Random Access Memories its touching vulnerability. Daft Punk still makes appearances in helmets, but its members' feelings are no longer masked. Turns out these would-be robots are romantics, but they're not old softies. This is music that uses its creators' thorough sense of pop history to create a sense of uplift, purpose and passion.
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