For those who don’t know or don’t care (I count myself among the latter), the 56th Annual Grammy Awards took place this week. This is one award show that I just don’t really care about. I don’t want to sound like a snob (although I have a blog where I review things for my own conceited purposes, so the cat’s out of the bag on that one), but the Grammys don’t really seem to have much meaning. The Academy Awards are similarly meaningless, but at least there’s a level of prestige associated with them; the fact that there are approximately 1,000 awards given out at the Grammys each year kind of dilutes their purpose (There are actually 82 categories, which is crazy because it makes my hyperbole seem kind of reasonable). But at the very least the fact that some body came together to recognize achievement in some field implies there is media worth checking out. In this case I decided to take a look at Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, the so-called “Album of the Year.”
I listened to a lot of Daft Punk (a.k.a. the Punks) in my early college days (as well as other electronica acts such as Justice and Infected Mushroom). I never really sought it out, it was just part of the environment I often found myself in. A stoned environment, if I’m being specific. I never formed a personal opinion on the music, as I was not very discerning when in that particular state, but eventually I reached an over-saturation level. Electronica just stopped being interesting to me.
Without meaning to I have kind of shunned that entire genre of music, especially as it began trending so heavily in the dub step direction. The Punks have been hold-out on that ever-annoying front however, so why not take this opportunity to look at their most recent album. One that has been so lauded since it’s release. Maybe I can get back into this. Just… keep in mind that I have never even attempted to review a musicalwork before.
“Give Life Back to Music”
The opening piece starts with a real lively feel, not nearly as mechanical as I expect from Daft Punk. Of course the robotic voices kick in pretty quickly, evoking an “Oh, that’s right” response from me. But the hook itself kind of sets up what the album is going to do: “Let the music of your life/Give life back to music.” This album is eventually going to take on a life of its own. Even the Punks don’t know for sure where it’s going to go. There are hints of this evolution in the unruly voices heard toward the song’s end.
“The Game of Love”
But the Punks aren’t ready to give control away just yet. They have to establish the rules first, before they can start to break them. So we get “The Game of Love,” which has all the trappings of a classic Daft Punk-y situation – the repetitive nature, the synth, of course the autotuned robot voice – but with instrumental experimentation that indicates bigger things on the horizon.
“Giorgio by Moroder”
“Giorgio by Moroder” is the first real departure on the album. The track begins as an interview of sorts with producer Giorgio Moroder talking about music and his approach to building a sound. From there the song turns into an episode of Radiolab, constructing itself before our very ears, with Giorgio dropping in to give some context. The song evolves over its extended runtime, becoming exactly the kind of dynamic sound I was hoping the album would give me; it just happens to be in the form of a tribute to this influential figure in music history.
Diverse musical styles begin to worm their way onto the record here; this song starts strong with a real smooth piano lick. The inherent variety brought me on board immediately. Then the autotune/robot voice kicks in, which was disappointing. This song is notable for being the first one on the album to contain verses, as well as a hook, a sign that the Punks are preparing to switch things up in more ways than one.
The slow release of control continues here. This song seems to be more of the same, but all of a sudden vocal duties have been handed to an outside party: The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas. His voice goes through the robot filter (because they’re robots!). It’s a bummer because Casablancas has a great voice; unmolested vocals probably would have made for a more attractive song. There is, however, a level of dynamism to the instrumentation.
“Lose Yourself to Dance”
Pharrell’s vocals here are not as clearly modified, which is a nice change of pace. The album begins to settle into a more dance-y, disco-y vibe with this song. Our favorite robots are relegated to babbling in the background. Obviously this is supposed to be a dance anthem (just look at the title), and that rhythm does start to become infectious as you listen to it more and more.
This is another long one. We get some meandering synthesizer to get started, laid under some distorted vocals from God knows where. Then Paul Williams takes over and you really start to feel the disco vibe everyone is talking about. That part is my favorite third of a song on the album (only a third because our hosts just can’t stay out of the mix). The song feels like a ballad from a ’70s concept album. It’s great. Then it turns into yet another song – a more psychedelic riff on intimacy. Ultimately it settles into a hodge-podge of these styles. This is really the pinnacle of the album’s experiementation, and it pays off, even if it isn’t the catchiest tune.
And here we are. The song of the year or whatever. It is definitely catchy. It excels in the chorus of course; the verses are far from interesting. But I dare you not to sing along if you are listening to this song alone in your car. Or even if you are not alone. Music can be a shared experience you guys. Really think about that.
“Beyond” kicks off with a huge orchestral swell. It’s unlike anything we’ve heard up to this point, but it quickly settles into familiar territory. Still, it was nice while it lasted, and it lends a little life to the song, wherein the Punks begin to assert themselves again.
“Motherboard” is a less successful instrumental than “Giorgio” was. It has a nicely paced motif, but there is very little evolution of that theme. We get small interruptions, but then we are right back to where we started. I suppose there is something to be said for consistency, but this might be the first indicator that things are starting to settle back down. This sense is perhaps most conveyed by the sound of rainfall in the background toward the song’s end. When the song end the rain ends, almost as if the storm that has driven the record for the last several tracks is now over.
“Fragments of Time”
One last hurrah for the collaborative feel of the record. The vocals in “Fragments of Time” are provided by Todd Edwards, but the synthesizer is back stronger than ever. The production feels a lot more in the Punk’s wheelhouse, though the final fragments of chaos make themselves known in the extraneous percussion.
“Doin’ It Right”
We complete our return into Daft Punk station. The majority of the vocals come via the robotic voices, with only a couple moments of unmodified vocals from Panda Bear. There is not much in the way of verse-chorus structure here; there are shades, but mostly we are provided with a couple overlapping hooks. The Punks have managed to take control back control of the music – exactly what you would expect from a couple of robots playing out their programming.
And here we are at the album’s finale. It is mainly instrumental, apart from an opening monologue describe an unidentified object in the vast expanse of space. The song acts as a conclusion to the experience, summarizing the different sounds we’ve heard: the calculated synthesizers contrasted with the less rigid drum fills, as well as what they create together. It is bittersweet as we say goodbye to the seeming spontaneity that has entertained us for the last hour. But it is still out there. Somewhere. We made contact with it once, we can do it again.
The album functions on a bit of a bell curve, where the independent variable is track number and the dependent variable is loss of control. This unpredictability peaks with “Touch” at the exact mid-point of the album. It is telling that this song is sandwiched between the two Pharrell tracks, which are definitely more mainstream dance hits. It is almost as if the Daft Punks have crafted a palindrome; we hear the album get out of their hands, then slowly work its way back into their clutches by the end.
It is during these out-of-control moments that the album really soars. I’m not implying that Daft Punk wasn’t meticulously crafting these songs. These songs just seem to be the biggest departure from the comfort zone, and therefore they provide the largest payoff.
Does Random Access Memories deserve to be called “Album of the Year?” I didn’t really listen to enough contemporary music last year to craft an informed opinion, but I definitely enjoyed this experience more than I expected to. And I don’t plan to put the album away forever; I may even listen to this sucker on the way to work tomorrow (step aside Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack). The album has a few duds in my estimation, but what album is perfect (besides Tommy)? I’ll certainly chalk this up as a net positive, and that is high praise from a snob like me.