Read Only Memories

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Man oh man. I’ve been waiting for this album. Waiting for it for *years*. I’ve waited through a live album, a Kanye West single, a motion picture soundtrack, and a remix album of said soundtrack. All of it for this. For this.

My God. What a letdown.

Really. This was not worth the wait. And as I’m sure you know by now, everyone is praising the hell out of this album, calling it – and I’m quoting here – “the boldest, smartest, most colourful and purely pleasurable dance album of this decade”, “Daft Punk’s best album in a career that’s already redefined dance music at least twice”, and finally, “the album on which Daft Punk are truly and convincingly ‘human after all.’ They’ve never sounded better.” Jeez guys – tone it down a notch, will you?

Now I’m trying my best to temper myself here because this isn’t an album that I vehemently hate, exactly (although I certainly don’t like it), and it does have a few songs that redeem it (albeit momentarily). But by and large, it’s a failed experiment. Random Access Memories attempts to do something different, an admirable aim for any artist that’s as established as Daft Punk are. A lot of folks are writing about how this album has appropriated an array of sounds from the 80’s, and made something elegant and regal out of them. I wish I heard that; I hear LiteFM cheese, cheese of the most bland and inoffensive sort (what most of the songs on RAM remind me of on a musical level more than anything aren’t other Daft Punk songs, but stock music – it’s an album of tunes that have a terminal existence, wherein you’re aware of them as they’re playing, but they cease to be in your mind as soon as they’re done).

To me, it doesn’t work. And because I (even now), still *want* it to work, this puts my mind in a weird spot; if these songs were to hit me as they are on an emotional or intellectual level somehow, I could appreciate the change. But since they don’t, I just keep wanting; specifically, I want the songs to make me want to dance. And they don’t. Daft Punk have mad an album that doesn’t make me want to dance (they did, however, make a group of songs that would work great the next time Tommy Wiseau needs to underscore a sex scene).

So that’s what I’m left with – an unfulfilled yearning.

And yeah, just because Daft Punk make music that people dance to regularly doesn’t mean that that’s always what they have to do. But since the change-up on RAM doesn’t grab me, I don’t see the presence of something new. I just see the absence of what I know them as, of what could’ve been if they’d just cloned Discovery (which, if I’m honest, I’d enjoy more than this). It’s not like I haven’t given the album a chance; I’ve listened to the damn thing front to back about nine or ten times now, hoping that it might eventually reveal itself to me, that it might show me something that I was previously not privy to. But it hasn’t.

Before I get into the problems, though, I feel I should start with the album’s two standout tracks; the first of these is Giorgio By Moroder, a nine-minute voyage to…well, it doesn’t really matter. The song has the distinction of being one of only two tracks on the album that takes you anywhere – and while it’s easy to guess that, based on Giorgio’s narration, you’re going to wind up in the future (especially when that click track he talks about pops in underneath his speech – it’s a beautiful moment, and the only time the album made me go “wow!” to myself). But that’s not exactly the case. You actually hear the future intertwined with the past; jazzy organ and bass tossed with the synth line, while the drum machine eventually gives way to actual drums. It’s a pleasure to listen to, and as the whole song wound down, and that click from the beginning finally settles in again at the end, I thought “this is it – it’s going to be great from here on out.” But the click was a tease; it leads to nothing, and the subsequent song, Within (a limp piano ballad with a vocoder) demolishes the momentum Giorgio had built up. What a shame.

While the album certainly doesn’t begin strongly (both Give Life Back To Music and Game of Love are entirely forgettable), it certainly ends strongly. Contact is the album’s other truly great strong, and it too takes you on a journey – and while it’s a more straightforward journey than Giorgio, it’s no less enjoyable. The song sounds as if you’re tearing through the Earth’s atmosphere, careening toward the sea, and eventually crashing there with magnificent force. Again, it’s wonderful, and the tension that slowly builds in the song is done via single tone gradually increasing in pitch until everything shatters at the end. Man, if all of RAM contained songs as good as these two, it’d really be something to get excited over. If’s and but’s, though, people. They count for nothing.

There’s a few other decent songs on the album, (Instant Crush and Lose Yourself To Dance), but everything else failed to make an impact on me. The rest of the songs just feel empty in some way. More than once, I’ve thought of the bulk of them as demos, as if Daft Punk just sort of stopped finishing them. That might sound extreme, but really, how else am I supposed to feel about songs as bare as Doin’ It Right or Beyond? There’s just huge sections of time going by where only one or two thing are happening, and the progression of those things is so stagnant, I can’t help but wonder if something else was supposed to sit atop them, giving them direction and purpose. ’cause right now, they’re lacking.

Sometimes, a song will eventually reach a place where it starts making an emotional connection with me, but since it took its sweet time getting there, I just sort of feel odd. Touch is like that. It’s an strange song, with Paul Williams doing his best James LaBrie impression for much of it, as the music gets more and more flowery and ridiculous. But then, six and a half minutes in, it finally starts to build to something, and it’s kind of nice – it’s not what I want from Daft Punk, but it’s nice. And just as it reaches its climax, everything vanishes, and then it’s over. There’s no dénouement. It just stops. There’s Williams, one last time, and then nothing. I could appreciate this sort of thing if the song had steadily built to that moment, but here, I feel cheated. The only interesting action has been taken from me too soon.

Most of the songs don’t get to that point, though. I feel like there’s a wall between me and them. Motherboard, on paper, should be fascinating, but it’s a trial for me to sit through. There’s a Phillip Glass push/pull to it that’s interesting (especially since, in a song called Motherboard, it’s delivered by a woodwind duo), but it’s never given enough time to develop into anything. It finishes, and everything just loops back to the start again. Oh, and we abruptly go underwater in it at some point – why not, right? And hey, that could be interesting too, but it’s not given the chance to be.

Again, this is an album I wanted to love all of, not just two tracks of. I still want to. I’d love it if I did. And I don’t have anything against those glamorous 80’s sounds. But here, Daft Punk seem to have captured them at their most sterile and uninviting. This is stuffy lounge music. This is what you’d hear in a dimly-lit restaurant, smeared in beige and black leather, when you’re miles from home. It provides no comfort. It tugs neither at your heart, hips, or head. It makes you feel isolated. It’s a bore.

And you know what a bore is?

“Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship.”

In other words, Random Access Memories.

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3 thoughts on “Read Only Memories

  1. Just wanted to give you props for the James LaBrie line in here. Listening to the album for the first time I actually had to check the song credits to make sure it wasn’t him singing in Touch.

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