With Human After All, electro-enfants terribles Daft Punk demonstrate that they’re willing to defend their status as practically the only French pop-house act—no, make that the only pop-house act anywhere—capable of shaping solid, unified dance music albums (a title bequeathed by yours truly, naturally). And, in some inscrutable act of mercy killing, they’re willing to defend it to the point of disregarding every aspect of the process that isn’t album-oriented. Human After All is a capital-A Album that somehow fails to be just about anything else: a) a collection of danceable jams, b) an act of pop artifice that, like 2001’s Discovery, also manages to work spectacularly as pop sincerity, or c) music. But, by God, there’s an LP ethos here, albeit one that seems to depend on having tapped into Discovery, the cheez-whiz blend of early-‘80s trash-rock, MOR nattering, and streamlined post-disco funk of which has still proven visionary enough that its own creators apparently deign to reimagine the brew in a masturbatory act of satire. (Way to go, DP. Satirizing a concept that was, by design and necessity, its own mockery. How meta is your “digital love”?)
That Virgin Records is chugging forth with a lead-off single—“Robot Rock,” with its would-be “Da Funk”-derivative roller-derby funk breaks—only highlights this seemingly built-in deficiency (rumors continue to fly that the album was a contractual obligation to Virgin and that the duo are sitting on some A-grade material for release later in the year). What, in its sequencing on the album, comes off as an intriguingly fatigued, ironic, and embittered nod toward their own past (they appear in the same robot getup c. 2001) just sounds flat and tired in isolation. Offering nothing more than the same crepuscular squelch-guitar hook (a descending arpeggio that weighs on the dance floor like lead balloons), as Human After All‘s “Track 3” it reads as merely one of a number of wax museum tableaus. But as a bid for Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart, the thick-skulled kicks on the one sound about as appealing as being cornered at a circus by a sad hobo clown who won’t leave you alone until you laugh at his destitution.
And so it is with the album’s other eight tracks: what provides color in sequence goes gray in isolation. “The Prime Time Of Your Life” and “Steam Machine” try, and fail, to transform the warm, open-throated drone of “Rollin’ And Scratchin’” into a messenger of menace, but yet the effort conveys an intriguingly frustrated attempt to finesse euphoria out of sour milk. There’s an insulting inadequacy to the half-assed multimedia vida loca sentiments of “Television Rules The Nation” and “Technologic,” a lazy reticence that sounds the distress signals but doesn’t bother to point to the smoke. Yet their sketchy arguments make complete sense within the overriding logic of Human After All, an album that seems to function as the very embodiment of intentional immobility: Namely, that dance culture’s omnipresence and co-opted cachet have diminished, if not completely destroyed, the format’s capacity for surprise.
If the bewildered, alternately contemptuous or winking “Oh, I get it, it’s so bad it’s good” initial reactions to the album are any indication, the duo seems to have found a way to fight the malaise, if nothing else. Or else Daft Punk have just been lucky enough to harness the sense of post-electronica diffidence that’s been infecting the stale club air lately. Or maybe they truly just wanted to make an album to live up to Armand Van Helden’s label “Mongoloidz.” Either way, Human After All is a nagging brat of an album that, at the very least, manages to throw a spectacular tantrum while everyone else in da house (or do I mean sarcophagus?) seems content rearranging the endtables and sconces.