Homework, the french duo Daft Punk's 1996 debut album, relied on sleazy electro-funk hooks and clever thefts of Seventies radio pop: It got you feeling good, though slightly covertly, since you didn't really know who these people were. Daft Punk wore masks in publicity shots, disguised their voices with electronics, preferred the sound of outmoded gear and left their tracks lean. Naysayers criticize dance music as anonymous product, but here was dance music that slyly celebrated its own anonymity and production.
Since then, we've seen an explosion of much-maligned market-driven music: teen pop that's as nourishing as an oil rag and rappers yelling like angry landlords over Mattel beats. But on Daft Punk's second album, Discovery, the duo suggests that commodification has its positive side: that a really enormous song, a piece of invincible product like, say, Cher's "Believe," is as finely crafted as any obscure dance opus or underground hip-hop track. And unlike with many modern rock songs, there is no self-defeatism in "Believe." It is a song that drinks from the well of house music, and house at its best is like a church the size of Monaco. You go inside there and you prostrate yourself before something that's not yours alone.
Daft Punk's new single, "One More Time," is that kind of song: a piece of superreligion with an invincible beat and a nailed-to-the-wall vocal by house singer Romanthony. It is stamina itself, an anthem to "keep on dancing" that's already a huge hit in clubs and on the radio. All those knowing listeners who bought Homework and signed on for the pair's rascally, nudge-wink grooves now have to figure out what part of "One More Time" is for them. Is there a subversive part of "One More Time"? If so, where does it begin?
In its sheer perfection, is my best guess. This is the moment when the indie sensibility implodes before our eyes: when prank-pulling weirdos, young Frenchmen who hire director Spike Jonze to put dog-people in their videos, try to make honest-to-god hits. Struggling to understand the song, you find yourself analyzing Romanthony's vocoderized singing — the way he overenunciates words, like "tonigh-tah." It's overkill, maybe. Overkill is parody; that's Daft Punk. But is it generous, Cher-level overkill or the overkill of a smirking weenie? C'est les deux. And now you must give up thinking about it, because they're playing these docteurs du funk at McDonald's.
Discovery helps you get your mainstream on but only for its first half. The songs that grab you are loaded up front. The momentum of "One More Time," the album's first track, continues through "Digital Love" — a shameless bite of the Buggles' Eighties synth boogie — and rolls up to "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," which is Euro dance music at its absolute best: hand claps, a clanking ride cymbal, funky stabs on the Fender Rhodes, vocoder and all. The first five songs are the work of a real band, Daft Punk, whoever the hell they are.
But then the handprint of the maker grows weirdly faint. "Crescendolls," which is one bouncy two-bar loop over and over, hints at the problems to come; then there's the short "Nightvision," which has the eerie, ambient feeling of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love," without vocals. Where are we going? As for the rest, it grows anonymous, and not in the artful way that Daft Punk used to capitalize on. The album becomes muddled — not only in the spectrum between serious and jokey but in its sense of an identity.
Not all of it behaves like house music: On the slow-rolling "Something About Us," with real bass, they're setting you up for a love-man balladeer to enter. What you get instead is the vocoderized voices of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — a nice, knowing bit of playing with an audience's expectations. There's some defiantly analog nostalgia, if you're in the mood to reassess some of Steve Winwood's synth tones from the mid-Eighties. As for swiping in good taste, there's some early electro-hip-hop mainlined straight from Grandmaster Flash ("Short Circuit"), as well as plenty of Chic's rhythm-section signatures, too.
The vocoders are deactivated in the last few songs — "Face to Face," featuring Todd Edwards, and "Too Long," with Romanthony again. And what you get is pro-level, soulful singing with pretty thin, narrow musical ideas behind it. It's not old-DP funny, nor is it new-DP transcendent; it's just workmanlike. Maybe Discovery is a scattershot triumph, a blow against monolithic record-making; I confess to being a bit baffled by it, and get the feeling I won't know why for a while yet. What I do know is that not enough of this album delivers on the promise of "One More Time." Instead of a church service run by heretics, you get inside jokes and reference swapping in a dance-music clubhouse.