I usually try to write about things other than myself, but when it comes to anything Daft Punk-related, I’m unabashedly entangled. And so, what follows is a somewhat sheepish, autobiographical impression of the album.
Of Random Access Memories, Sasha Frere-Jones asks, “Does good music need to be good?” I’m struggling with a similar concern. But before I continue, I hope you’ll afford me a personal aside:
Daft Punk’s music formed a significant portion of my identity as a teenager and young adult. “Around the World” was the first MP3 I ever discovered on a search engine. Discovery consumed all of my developing aesthetic sensibilities (around the same time I was buying turntables and learning to DJ), and I had an essentially religious experience watching Daft Punk live at Coachella in 2006. They inspired me to like robots again, and made my love of disco and 80′s pop seem far less marginal.
Back to the conundrum: Random Access Memories is over-understated. I don’t dislike it, but the album essentially provides no raucous, shiny hook to hang my satisfaction upon. Discovery has succulent, perfectly filtered samples; Human After All has relentless robot bombast, Random Access Memories has… exceptionally tight session guitar licks? In years prior this would be a huge problem, but unlike my 16-year-old self, I already have an identity that I’m pretty happy with. Feeling somewhat ambivalent about Random Access Memories doesn’t cause me debilitating existential angst.
Still, over-understated is basically a euphemism for “boring,” and I don’t often listen to boring music. And yet others (and I) seem to be returning to the album pretty relentlessly, and I kind of want to accuse them (and myself) of being a slavish and narrow victim of the hype machine.1
But what nags is a sensation that there is something sublime about Random Access Memories. The more I hear about Daft Punk’s approach—that they sought to integrate the same human craftsmanship that went into the albums they’ve sampled for years—the more I get the sense that they are truly working artists, pursing authentic themes that they find inspiring and fulfilling to create. Even if a number of tracks are uncharacteristically beige at a distance, there’s a just-buried pop sensibility that begs to be uncovered. Moreover, I’m finding it hard to dismiss the album because it’s not sellout work. A sellout’s album would have sounded like the kind of liquid, robot dance music that Daft Punk has already mastered. And so I keep coming back to listen.
It’s exciting to imagine that the duo is ahead of the curve, using Random Access Memories to give the public access to a nascent aesthetic that we’ll grow to appreciate, just as they did with Homework in 1997.2
But here’s a final, overarching doubt: maybe this is a bad album, and I’m just fetishizing Daft Punk. I’m a card-carrying member of the Daft Club (this is nearly literal), and so perhaps I’m papering over the blandness with my own manufactured enthusiasm. After all, millions went into marketing this thing, and I fully accept that I’m ordinary enough to be the bullseye for some marketer’s demographic engagement cannonry.
Luckily, I don’t really have much time nowadays to wallow in this roiling self-analysis. And that’s a part of this story too—my recent endeavors would probably seem screamingly humdrum to my younger self, just as Random Access Memories would probably disappoint the hell out of the 17-year-old me. And yet, I feel like I’m carrying a more meaningful payload of intellect, experience, and drive than ever before in my life, and Random Access Memories seems like it’s full of work and substance in a similar way.
Amidst all of this tortured ambivalence I have about Random Access Memories, I find it unassailably satisfying that Daft Punk’s music might continue to provide a sense of aesthetic and emotional companionship; that Random Access Memories is a gentle education to the adult me, just as Discovery was a rhapsodic one to the teenaged me. I’ve not looked to music for this in a long time—it’s mostly a mood-altering service for me nowadays—but Random Access Memories grants an orthogonal satisfaction. The album scratches an itch I didn’t even know was there.
- This feeling was exacerbated last week by the experience of hearing a trio of trying-hard-to-be-hip yuppie types on BART talking about how excited they were about the album. I departed the train with deep, murky clouds of shark jumpy feelings, although those kinds of things are far less visceral nowadays thanks to the identity stability discussed above. ↩
- I’m willing to accept that perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part; me wanting to be part of the vanguard of something new and groundbreaking. ↩