I was as thrilled to hear the album as anyone, but I also knew I'd be late to the party: despite the fact that any sane person would have only had the chance to listen through three or four times, opinions had already hardened. And what was immediately apparent when I finally pressed play on Random Access Memories was that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo hadn't created something you could reasonably wrap your head around in high speed 21st-century time.
We've seen a handful of artists tinkering with what constitutes a pop record this year: it can, apparently, have 20-minute ambient doomscapes (The Knife's Shaking The Habitual) and outré-bass freakouts (James Blake's Overgrown), and it can even vehemently object to the whole idea of pop without really disowning it (Atom TM's HD). Random Access Memories feels profoundly conservative by comparison, which in a way makes it just as radical. It's an album rooted in a now-ancient aesthetic: '70s staples, like crisply recorded California studio music, or the kind of deceptively sophisticated New York disco that Nile Rogers, one of the album's key guest artists, popularized with Chic. Nothing here is ironic or hypnogogic or even particularly reverent. Daft Punk are just working in a way that practically no one is able or willing to. The end product requires that we put warp-speed aside, plug into as massive a pair of speakers as possible and just let this thing wash over you.
You'll be thrilled that you did, because once Random Access Memories unravels, it is, at its best, pretty magnificent. Those swirling, hilariously heavy guitar stabs that send you cringing on the first listen or two? They sound wonderfully epic by listen five. The unsettlingly smooth soft-rock ballad that follows? You'll be diving quite willingly into its painstakingly constructed stereo embrace within a day. Giorgio Moroder rambling on about his salad days? Well, you may find yourself skipping past that after a few listens, but the loping power-Italo instrumental that jumps off around the two-minute mark takes its place amongst Daft Punk's most gratifying tunes. Unfathomably pleasurable single "Get Lucky" aside, there's really only one cut on the album that hits you immediately—"Doin' It Right," with Panda Bear belting out the record's most memorable melody by a mile. Fittingly, its brittle arrangement grows stronger and deeper with each rotation.
The attention you're paying to the good also uncovers the album's imperfections. As strong as it is, the gargantuan "Giorgio By Moroder" wanders and could have used some editing. "Within," all rimshots and twinkling Rhodes and lamenting melody, might be a little more yacht-ballad than you can stomach. And I haven't yet made up my mind whether "Motherboard" is pure filler or a brilliantly conceived collage of incidental music from the erotic vampire film Italy failed to produce. Either way, there should be no pressure to choose a side just yet. Daft Punk's classics, Homework and Discovery, have both stayed with us for over a decade. It's still way too early to say, but I wouldn't be surprised if we're still teasing out Random Access Memories' pleasures years down the line.
Mon / 20 May 2013
01. Give Life Back to Music feat. Nile Rodgers
02. The Game of Love
03. Giorgio by Moroder
05. Instant Crush feat Julian Casablancas
06. Lose Yourself to Dance feat. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers
07. Touch feat. Paul Williams
08. Get Lucky feat. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers
11. Fragments of Time feat. Todd Edwards
12. Doin' It Right feat. Panda Bear