What trumps being a legend? Being a pioneer. The chrome-domed robots that jacked the bodies of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter on the eve of the 21st century long ago settled their claim on the former title (by my estimation, at the moment the fake-out kick drum at the beginning of the filter-disco epic “One More Time” gave way to the meaty thud of the real beat), but they evidently believe the latter can’t be earned through reputation alone, which is undoubtedly why they felt compelled to provide Giorgio Moroder the forum to compose his disco life and times for nine indulgent minutes. Daft Punk’s long-in-progress new album Random Access Memories, simultaneously the most narcissistic and selfless gesture in their careers so far, is a painstaking mission statement. It’s also often a pain.
If the album smacks of the willfully retrograde, well, it’s not like Discovery didn’t also bewilder audiences ready to have their asses assaulted by more ruthlessly thick loops on the order of “Da Funk.” The red alert for most thrill-seekers here will be the duo’s emphasis on live instrumentation, analog drumbeats, antiquated—not just retro, but downright ancient— synthesizer models and virtually no sample chopping. But the attentiveness to craft, the deployment of EQ naturalism, the emphasis on tantric repetitions with minor but crucial variations that characterize RAM have all been signposts of Daft Punk’s work in the past, to varying degrees. Not for nothing has the album’s pre-release build-up seemed to have been predicated on writing Human After All out of the history books and positing this as the heir to Discovery’s throne; there’s no room in this particular narrative to apologize for an album that, never mind their alleged affinity for it, was produced in a sloppy-fast two weeks. Not when they’ve achieved their Gaucho.
With shades of soul brothers in bemused detachment Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, Daft Punk’s work now hops between genres in a way that threatens to satisfy fans of none of them, dissecting the elements of each and filling the room with the sour odor of formaldehyde. Their music here is as unnervingly stiff and rewardingly labored as Steely Dan’s later albums, and also as rewardingly fussy. No one would dare dispute their bona fides now, but their genius seems directed at too-cool-for-school deconstruction, musicianship sublimated to presumptuous but mesmerizing instructiveness. Fagen and Becker were dedicated mixologists obsessing over the flavor profiles of their homemade bitters, but refusing to let the base spirit of any cocktail assert its own innate character. De Homem-Christo and Bangalter are cake bosses sculpting layers of neon fondant into stiff peaks simulating meringue, selectively editing out the cake itself. Legends sell recipes, but pioneers work without foundations. Why use bourbon or eggs when you can slip your captive audience Fernet Branca?
At almost every turn, RAM deliberately cheats its listening audience of the empty calories they’ve been weaned on. Even “Get Lucky,” the album’s now in retrospect deceptively reassuring lead single and the entire substance of Columbia’s promotional push thus far, is a model of reservation next to the likes of “Aerodynamic” or even “Technologic.” In sequence within the album, Pharrell’s smooth falsetto and Nile Rodgers’s tangy guitar voicing form a primer in basic groove architecture, no longer a retro commodity, but a simulacrum and, on this album, a genuine oddity.
But few other tracks on RAM are so ripe for dance-floor assimilation, despite their pleasures. “I remember touch,” gurgles the Phantom of the Paradise at the opening of the irresistible Paul Williams collaboration “Touch” before rejecting Eros and admitting, “I need something more.” The song is a barmy echo of the earlier “Giorgio By Moroder” in that both compress entire histories into miniature narratives conveyed via musical maximalism. “Giorgio By Moroder” hews relatively close to 1977, but “Touch” expands its scope to accommodate for everything from Williams’s ripe Tin Pan Alley showmanship, callisthenic wakka-chikka disco, and Ryan Tedder R&B bombast. “Give Life Back to Music” is a call to arms that opens the album with both barrels loaded, but unlike Discovery’s four-four quartet (without question one of the strongest opening sets of any album in the CD era), RAM drifts almost immediately into melancholia, like a theme and variations stemming from “Something About Us.” The vocodor that buzzsawed through “Digital Love” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” here underscores the downbeat love hangover of jazz-fusion artists submitting to 4 a.m. disco. “Beyond” and “The Game of Love” suggest breathers from Herbie Hancock circa Sunlight, and until they head back to the grid halfway through, “Motherboard” is straight Bob James.
RAM is an album that ultimately comes off having more respect for its spiritual predecessors than its listeners. Daft Punk aren’t necessarily presuming the mantle of pioneers so much as they’re using an LP to pay tribute to the roster of people they consider to have earned the designation. Some may call it arrogant and others will find it humble, but you have to love that not a single name attached to the album, nor a single reference point you could infer from the music within, would also be found on the tag cloud of Homework’s “Teachers.” DJs on the run.