It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and I’ve just arrived home from Daft Punk’s offices in the heart of Hollywood, on La Brea near Sunset, where I listened to Random Access Memories on my trusty Audio Technica ATHM50 headphones. The security around this release is so intense that the only way reviewers can hear it is in person. Having just moved to Los Angeles, this enabled me to get a short history lesson: the buildings at 1416 N. La Brea were built by Charlie Chaplin in 1917 and he made some classic films there. Later, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss made it the base for A&M Records and Studios. The studio is now owned by The Jim Henson Company, and the Muppet vibe is strong here.
I was led to a small second-floor office near the entrance to the lot, sparsely decorated save for a couple of Daft Punk action-hero figures on the bookshelf. Sitting down to listen, I realized I don’t often consume music this way: alone, in a room, with zero distractions, listening from the first note to the last — in other words, the way I used to experience music in 1982. Back then, the band whose releases I anticipated the most eagerly was New Order. In 2013 it is Daft Punk.
Here’s what I can remember about the album — I only listened once. (I took notes also.) There are 13 songs. There is a ton of vocoder, which is a most excellent way to disguise both a French accent and the occasional odd turn of English grammar. The vocoder can be an awful effect, but with Daft Punk it never seems gratuitous; it wouldn’t be unfair to say they own this particular sound. The lyrics are short, mantra-like, rarely more than a couple of lines (except for two songs co-written with ’70s pop songwriting king and current ASCAP president Paul Williams, himself no stranger to the Muppets).
The album is performed by Daft Punk — Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — along with a host of well-known session musicians such as drummer Omar Hakim (Sting, Madonna, Miles Davis), bassist Nathan East (Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Elton John), and pedal steel player Greg Leisz (Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell), as well as a full orchestra. According to the label’s press release, the entire album was performed by musicians and recorded straight to tape. Of course, the great disco tracks were recorded this way too — people think of that music as being machine-like, but it is in fact utterly human. Session guys are at the mercy of the singer and the song, but in the right hands, on songs like these, it certainly works. Besides Nile Rodgers and Paul Williams, the handful of guest artists includes Julian Casablancas singing high in his register, Noah Lennox sounding like Panda Bear, and Pharrell Williams being smooth.
The opener, “Give Life Back to Music,” feels like KC & the Sunshine Band; I could have sworn that was Jerome Smith on guitar. But no, the credits say it’s Nile Rodgers (who reportedly dug Jerome Smith’s guitar stylings as a teenager) playing this guitar part at the very studio — Electric Ladyland — where he recorded the first Chic single.
“Giorgio by Moroder” features fabled disco auteur Giorgio Moroder delivering a spoken monologue on his musical evolution. He tells of his dream of playing the guitar, of driving to German discotheques in 1969, of wanting to create the sound of the future. “I thought, why not use a synthesizer? I knew we needed a click on the 24-track,” he says, “then synched to the Moog Modular. I didn’t realize what the impact would be.” This spoken interlude shifts into a cool, mathematical Daft Punk instrumental. But at this point, it doesn’t sound like the future, it sounds like the future as imagined in the 1970s… which perhaps describes this entire album.
“They went back to go forward,” explained Nile Rodgers in a promotional interview about the album. “Some of the best artists make you feel good — they look to the future.”
Then the song goes into a beautiful string part, and then into warp-drive, a turntable scratch, video game noises, a guitar solo.
Most albums lose steam after a few tracks, if they even have good tracks. Not so here — Random Access Memories starts strong but my favorite stretch of the record was tracks 6, 7 and 8. “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky” both feature Nile Rodgers on guitar and Pharrell Williams on vocals. “Get Lucky” was released about month ago and everyone I know loves it. Pharrell Williams gives a great vocal performance but the most exciting moment is when the vocoder enters and you know it’s Daft Punk. This is what they do best; create these euphoric moments where a song transforms from one particular groove and opens wide into something else, something that makes you want to dance, or cry, or both.
“Touch,” featuring Paul Williams (back at the same studios where he recorded for A&M in the ’70s), is another epic trip, and the structure of these longer pieces reminds me of MGMT’s Congratulations album (of which Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are fans), in that the songs go from here to there and then to somewhere else too, like they’ve thrown pieces of disparate songs into a pot, or maybe just into Ableton Live. At first I seem to be in the presence of a dreaming android — it evolves from a trippy Tomita-like intro into a full-on Shaft-like guitar part, then strings, horns, and a choir fades up singing:
“If love is the answer, you’re home, hold on
If love is the answer, you’re home”
“Fragments of Time,” featuring noted dance music producer Todd Edwards, seems to borrow from Wings, or Boz Scaggs, something I can’t quite put my finger on, but the genius of Daft Punk is their ability to raid the past, recombining old elements (or going through the trash) to create something harder and faster and better and stronger. The French call this bricolage. On past Daft Punk records this sometimes meant a sample manipulated through a ring modulator until it was unrecognizable. This time the method is more traditional; they sought out the musicians and studios that created some of these classic sounds in the first place.
And that’s all I can remember. According to the single page of credits they handed me, Random Access Memories was recorded over a three-year span, in Paris, New York and Los Angeles, and now I know why — because it is magnificent, the best full album they have ever done. I can’t wait to hear it again.