Random Access Memories, Daft Punk, Daft Life/Columbia, 2013.
After a 7-year hiatus from releasing a studio album, the French duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, released their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories, today.
In an interview about the album on NPR’s program “All Things Considered,” Bangalter lamented that electronic music nowadays, produced primarily from laptops, is forgetting the craft of the previous generation of electronic music producers who had to build their own “creative ecosystem” using hardware components of guitar pedals, synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines.
In order to recapture this lost art and restore the soul of the musician to electronic music, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo refrained from using computers as musical instruments, and instead used them merely “to handle assets and pieces of audio…to edit the music and put it together.” Without relying on samples and sound banks, they opted for real guitars, analog synthesizers, pianos, trombones, clarinets, basses, a live drum kit, an orchestra, and a choir, etc. to capture the magic of human performance and expression.
Right from the first track, the layers of funky rhythm guitar and jazzy electric riffs played by the Chic frontman Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr. signal a deviation from the electronic dance music (EDM) that Daft Punk has come to be identified with. As the name of the song indicates, the whole album is this attempt to recover humanity in EDM and “Give Life Back to Music.”
Fittingly, then, Daft Punk returns to the past to pay tribute to “Giorgio by Moroder,” the legendary Italian producer, songwriter, and composer, to whom they are indebted for the “life” in their music. The song starts with Moroder’s autobiographical monologue about how he wanted to find the “sound of the future.” He soon realized that the synthesizer was the sound of the future, and then “put a click on the 24 track which was then synced to the Moog modular.”
Normally, a monologue in the beginning of any album would have been too heavy-handed, but Daft Punk intuitively knows when to shift gears on a track to keep it interesting. Right when one begins to wonder how much longer the talking would last (0:34), a relaxed, loping bass, groovy electric, and light drums enter to create a wonderfully understated backing track.
Just as Moroder starts talking about syncing the “click” to the Moog modular, the music fades out, leaving only the clicks of the modular synthesizer (1:33). Then, the end of Moroder’s monologue (1:54) ushers in a throbbing beat with perhaps the most compelling synth line in the whole album, as if to say, “See where we have gone with the sound of the future that you discovered!” At the end, the splendid synchronization of the drums with the successive bass (7:01-7:37) and electric (8:10-8:47) solos top off the epic track until it all dials back down to the “click” that started it all.
The album resumes the motif of robots longing to be human in the song “Touch.” The tender vulnerability of Paul Williams’s vocals, the trilling ondes martenot, the soaring orchestra, and the ethereal children’s choir weave together to convey this robotic longing for the human “Touch / Sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel… / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real. … / If love is the answer you’re home / Hold on.” In fact, the robot seems to perk up with life as the sprightly, jazzy piano sequence begins at 3:24.
Similarly, in the instrumental “Motherboard,” there seems to be an alien giving birth from 3:07 to 4:10 with the life-blood flowing and the heart pulsating. Continuing the theme of robots seeking humanity, the motherboard actually becomes a mother of sorts.
So what does it mean for a robot to become “human?” What does it mean to “give life back to music?” For Daft Punk, it’s all about love. The melancholic “The Game of Love” deals with the heartbreak of rejection, and “Get Lucky,” the anthemic single off the album, depicts a couple who stay “up all night ‘til the sun” to share their love.
The verse of the song adds that “What keeps the planet spinning / The force from the beginning [is] (love).” Once again, the most powerful and fundamental force in the world is love. “We’ve come too far to give up who we are.” Love is what makes us truly human.
“Get Lucky” features syncopated electric guitar sequences by Paul Jackson Jr. and Nile Rodgers that add polish to the luxuriant synth, and includes an arousing vocal performance by the N.E.R.D. frontman and The Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams. It is the most melodic track on the whole album and will likely continue to be played on repeat on many iPods throughout the summer.
The theme of dancing, playing music, making love into the night until the dawning of light are all recurring themes. “Doin’ It Right,” a collaborative output with Noah Lennox, aka. Panda Bear of Animal Collective, is a hypnotic song about dancing into the night, “If you do it right / Let it go all night / Shadows on you break / Out into the light… / If you lose your way tonight / That’s how you know the magic’s right.” “Lose Yourself to Dance” gets at the same idea.
The reason for Daft Punk’s preoccupation with losing oneself to dance, music, or love until night becomes day is that all these things push one to the edge of one’s existence and touch upon something transcendent. They remind us that our everyday mundane existence is not all there is. As the first line of “Get Lucky” says, “Like the legend of the Phoenix / All ends with beginnings.”
However, the transience of it all is not lost on Daft Punk. They understand that it’s not possible to linger in these moments of glory or hold onto the glimpses of eternity. The song “Fragments of Time” encapsulates this sense of futility, “Driving this road down to paradise / Letting the sunlight into my eyes… / Keep holding these random memories / Turning our days into melodies / But since I can’t stay… / I’ll just keep playing back / These fragments of time / Everywhere I go, this moment’ll shine.”
This is why the theme of memory is so significant. The album title, Random Access Memories, compares the computer RAM (Random Access Memory) to the human brain, but by changing the singular “memory,” which is technical and impersonal, to the plural “memories,” which has a distinctly human, sentimental feel, Daft Punk evokes a completely different emotional response.
In other words, Random Access Memories is about sehnsucht, a German word that connotes the universal “longing” for a “home” elsewhere, an ideal “far-off country.” It captures the unexplainable sense that this world is not all there is and that things are not the way they ought to be. It is not a chimera, however, it is more real than the reality we know. Walt Whitman articulates it well in the closing lines of his poem “Song to the Universal:”
Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.
This nostalgia, however, can never be fulfilled on earth. Human memories of love, beauty, and glory are ever elusive. They awaken a “spiritual homesickness,” which cannot be satisfied in this life. Even if we could travel back in time to these happy moments of the past, we would not find the thing itself, but only memories of it. As C.S. Lewis writes:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. … [O]ur life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. (Weight of Glory, p. 3-8)
That’s why the track “Beyond,” amidst the spacey orchestral backdrop, exhorts us to “Dream / Beyond dream / Beyond life / You will find / Your / Song / Before sound / To be found / Close your eyes / And / Rise / Higher still / Endless thrill / To the land of / Love / Beyond love / Come alive / Angel eye / Forever watching you and I… / To find our way we lose control / Remember love’s our only mission / This is a journey of the soul / The perfect song is framed with silence / It speaks of places never seen / Your home’s a promise long forgotten / It is the birthplace of your dreams.”
The hauntingly beautiful ballad, “Within”–courtesy of Chilly Gonzales’s solo piano, the shimmering keyboard and percussive work, and the lush, mournful vocoder–expresses this nostalgia perfectly: “There are so many things / That I don’t understand / There’s a world within me / That I cannot explain / Many rooms to explore / But the doors look the same / I am lost I can’t even remember my name / I’ve been for sometime / Looking for someone / I need to know now / Please tell me who I am.”
The final track on the album, “Contact” (6:21), is about making contact with “something out there.” The whole song is a crecendo, driven by racing synth loops and charged drums rolls. At 3:18, a low static hum begins to grows like a radio signal reaching for contact with the alien entity. The pitch elevates higher and higher until it comes to a feverish clash at 4:51, when the static changes to a low-pitch hum again with only the bass and the bass drum maintaining the base rhythm. The contact seems ever closer, but of course, when one seems to be on the verge of establishing communication with the alien party, the contact breaks off and the song ends. It’s a fitting end to this album about soul-searching and sehnsucht.
Apart from the couple songs that plod (“The Game of Love” and “Doin’ It Right”), every track on Random Access Memories contains indelible hooks and irresistible grooves. All in all, it is superbly mixed, with literally hundreds of musical units arranged seamlessly in a series of progressions and regressions and crescendos and decrescendoes that beckon again and again.
Daft Punk has brilliantly captured our human yearning for eternity. They are right that “to find a way we [must] lose control” (“Beyond”), but losing control in dance or music is not the goal. As Bach once said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
The truth is that we are alienated from God, our creator. We are exiles from our heavenly home. We were made for glory and immortality, yet we live in the squalor of sin and are subject to the tyranny of death. But on the cross, at the end of his life, Jesus Christ offers us new, eternal life. In Mark 8:35, Jesus teaches that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” We must let go and take hold of his hand in faith.
In Random Access Memories, the robots of Daft Punk have found their souls. Here’s to hoping that their souls will find a home in God, the only place where we can find true rest.
Buy Random Access Memories HERE.