French duo Daft Punk helped create our current stadium-shaking, Coachella-dominating dance-music moment, and their new album is by far the year's most anticipated EDM set. The only issue is that it sounds almost nothing like EDM.
Random Access Memories is full of WTF moments: Julian Casablancas delivering maybe the most emotive vocals of his career through a vocoder-style haze; dance godfather Giorgio Moroder waxing nostalgic on an electro-jazz-funk epic; pop-schmaltz guru Paul Williams ("We've Only Just Begun") playing a love-starved cyborg in a disco fantasia. Then there's the full package – a 70-minute-plus, over-the-top concept LP of prog-rocking, reverse-engineered dance music orbiting somewhere between Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Earth, Wind and Fire's That's the Way of the World.
It's a long way from Homework, the 1997 debut on which Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo perfected a brand of synth-and-sample-centered house music that rebooted Eurodisco and inspired acts from Kanye West to Swedish House Mafia. But plenty has happened since: EDM has gone megapop, while DP, following a 2007 stadium tour, repaired to L.A. to rethink their game.
Random Access Memories reflects all this. Like ex-smokers turned anti-tobacco militants, Daft Punk have been disparaging EDM in the press, and without forsaking their Kiss-like robot personae, they've built a record more or less wholly on live instrumentation. Its brilliance is often irrefutable – like when the exquisitely funky rhythm guitar of Nile Rodgers flickers through "Get Lucky" and "Lose Yourself to Dance," or when studio grandmasters Omar Hakim and John JR Robinson create godhead break beats apparently using drumsticks instead of loop triggers (see the prog-rock freakout "Contact").
There's a narrative here, too, although in concept-album tradition, it's a vague one. The processed vocals unspool a story that suggests cyborgs striving to be human – pretty much the story of all of us these days. On "Touch," Williams trades drama-queen verses with a cyber-chorus, like some alternate ending to Dave Bowman's standoff with HAL, the computer, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's completely ridiculous. It's also remarkably beautiful and affecting. So goes much of the record. Verses approach the banal; old-school-production treacle is laid on thick, but the creative soul is palpable. The jazz fusion gestures conjure ecstatic disco history as well as cheesy wine-bar soundtracks. And the absence of "modern" club beats is striking. This is not a record for the average Electric Daisy Carnival goer.
But maybe that's the point. A sort of Portrait of the Artists as Grown-Ass Ravers, this is Daft Punk conjuring the musical era that first inspired them, when disco conquered the world with handcrafted grooves and prog-rock excess magnified emotions in black-lit bedrooms. At times, the album is a victim of its own ambition. But it wouldn't be half as awesome a ride if it had aimed any lower.