In 30 years, they’ll still be discussing the marketing campaign for Random Access Memories. I’m just not sure if they’ll be talking about the album. Buoyed by one of the most exciting buildups of all time, it was inevitable that the reality of Daft Punk’s fourth studio album wouldn’t be able to match the possibility suggested by the heavily Instagrammed billboard on Sixth Street or the SNL ad that forcibly shoved “Get Lucky” down our ear canals. It is unfair to judge Random Access Memories by the gap between it and the imaginary RAM that has lived on blogs and in my mind for the last three or four months, but even setting that aside, I’m not quite sure that the record matches up.
Take “Giorgio by Moroder,” a tribute to Girogio Moroder (with an interview with the man himself) that simultaneously feels like a thesis statement for the record and a remake of “Losing My Edge” without any of the self-awareness or humor. The line between “making a record with the sounds of the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, and the future” and “you kids need to turn down that racket and respect your elders” is a thin one and often, it feels like RAM slips and starts making sure you knew it was there (it was theeeeeeerrrrrre). Blown out to near double-LP length, the band seems content to wander through a field of influences and old loves. This can lead to an amazing sense of discovery, as on “Touch” where emotive parts melt into a ragtime dance and then back to ballad, but it also seems like the band gets lost, as on the tedious “The Game of Love.” For me, the album briefly catches fire as “Touch” builds and builds to Paul Williams’ emotive vocals and then melts into the glorious, extended version of “Get Lucky” (when the one-minute snippet was first released, it was so catchy that I wondered just how much of that song I could listen to without getting sick of it. Apparently the answer is “at least more than 6:05”). But once “Beyond” kicks in, I find my attention fading again. Its a little too easy for me to zone out and find that I’ve missed a couple songs.
A lot of attention has been paid to Daft Punk’s decision to forgo sampling but the album is actually still sample-heavy in spirit; its just that they skip over the actual sampling part by bringing in the musicians to record new music that sounds like the kind of thing they used to do. They could have placed Pharrell’s vocals on top of Nile Rodgers’ disco guitar loops and added some Daft Punk vocoder action, but the decision to unwrap this process and actually record the parts live and in collaboration with the artists in question leads to a vitality and energy. However, at the same time, they’re so intent to play “curators” that the songs rarely rise above mash-up. Random Access Memories is its own remix.
Critics have taken this move largely as a response to EDM, the genre that Daft Punk accidentally launched and now, in interviews, seems eager to disavow. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it seems to lead the band to embrace their worst impulse, which is their need to say Something. Whenever Daft Punk goes too far off the reservation and attempts to add deeper meaning to their musings about technology you end up getting something like this. Or songs called “Give Life Back to Music.” Listening to the record, it feels like both Daft Punk and the larger critical community that is so eager to declare this a Great Record are looking for some kind of large statement on a record that doesn’t have one (which is fine) and peddles in largely shallow generalization (which is not). That said, the band’s selection and recreation of old sounds actually touches on a very modern notion.
In their own way, Daft Punk have managed to an album-length recreation of the modern Internet and media atmosphere, where “curation” and dressing up other people’s content in a new outfit is more profitable and more widespread than actual new stuff. More to the point, I don’t see any practical difference between what Daft Punk is doing on this album and what, say, Maria Popova does on Twitter or the staff of Buzzfeed does on their site. At the end of the day, Random Access Memories feels more like a work of aggregation and SEO than an album. “24 Great Songs From the 1970s That You Have to Hear Now.”
The other half of the new media equation is sharing, which brings me back to where we started. Capitalizing on our need to share things and plant flags in culture we approve of, every element of the Daft Punk build-up was meant to get us talking and sharing, but also to get us to take ownership of the album. There may have only been a few billboards and, to my knowledge, the commercial only ran at Coachella and on SNL, but it made the rounds on the Internet and, as it spread, it turned the people spreading it into tastemakers while also having them, conveniently, do a lot of the street team level work building awareness. We rented space on our Facebook and Twitter pages out to Daft Punk’s label, allowing them to use it publicize their album, in exchange for some cultural capital that comes with being the first to spread the word about a particularly cool album. Its a weird relationship, one that I dealt with a lot when I was working as a film blogger, but the end result is a tangible investment in the album being good (and, on the other side, a thirst to push back and be contrarian by declaring the album “bad”).
In a way, this is the extra-textual element that the album backs up the best. It is a record that is meant to be passed around and explored collectively. It is probably best listened to in a big room with lots of sweaty people around you, where the exquisite production and propulsion can cover for a lot of what is otherwise a little tedious. All of Daft Punk’s albums are lumpy, but this one is lumpy and seems to think it has more to say than it actually does. Of course, the only reason it feels like it has grander aspirations than getting you to shake your butt is because the amount and execution of hype primed the pump for an album that did more. Perhaps the album’s biggest crime is that it did too good of a job of capturing culture in 2013. Random Access Memories is imprisoned by the very cycle of aggregation and sharing that it mimics, capturing the exuberance, but also the disposability, of whatever viral hit is plastered all over your Facebook wall this week.