One of the primary assumptions in contemporary music criticism is that the golden age of the long-playing album is dead. With MP3s, digital streaming and file sharing, recorded sound has become so abstracted from the physical artifact that once housed it (most lamenters will pine for 33 1/3-RPM vinyl) that there is no incentive for a listener to sit down and wade through a 12-track, 45-minute meticulously sequenced song cycle—and so there’s no incentive for an artist or label to push the format. The most nostalgic among us bellyache over a future that will never produce another Dark Side of the Moon. In response, the rock world has scrambled (and toured more) to make ends meet, while electronic artists and anyone purveying club-ready dance singles have hardly shrugged. On this level, it’s the tracks that count (free streaming on SoundCloud as soon as they’re finished), sometimes even just the stems of the track that can be reparceled and resold ad infinitum, refreshing an artist’s cachet through the flattery of remix culture. Therefore, there’s something inherently retro about any artist’s close attention to the album format, regardless of how forward-looking the music sounds. For an electronic artist, the move can feel downright quaint.
French duo Daft Punk are about as close to an Elvis Presley as the EDM world has. They didn’t pioneer any of the house sensibilities and production techniques they used for their 1997 debut Homework, but they did deliver the genre, one ubiquitous dance anthem at a time, to a worldwide audience, paving the way for today’s DJ industry. Their new record, Random Access Memories, has been variously described as a comeback album, homage to the genre’s disco forebears, and an unlikely renaissance of the traditional LP, but as the group and its army of creative collaborators slowly teased and hyped the project in the months preceding its release, it became clear that Daft Punk were aspiring to something virtually unprecedented.
We’ve arrived in the age of the slow roll-out PR campaign and the savviest artists in any medium now understand that the hype machine is no different than the primary artifact you’re attempting to sell. While upstart bands learn to become social-networking performance artists, those with major label funds can—and must—stage intricate, multiplatform media sagas to attract and capitalize on the Internet’s viral feeding frenzy. This weekend’s cathartic Netflix release of the fourth season of Arrested Development is another case in point. Fans were going to devour the long-awaited new episodes anyway, but with teaser web ads, interactive hype sites, a veil of secrecy and a banana stand in Times Square, creators all but demanded the eight-hour viewing marathons so many of us logged on Sunday by getting us intimately involved in the run-up.
In this sense, the conceptual scope of Random Access Memories may prove more significant and enduring than the music itself. With meticulous vision and control, Daft Punk slowly allowed cryptic SNL teaser ads and a Coachella video trailer to plug a Creator’s Project YouTube series, one-by-one introducing the audience to album guests like Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, Julian Casablancas and Panda Bear, who in turn authored the mysterious narrative of the album and its android creators. Then we got the leaked album single “Get Lucky,” which was topped by the official radio edit, an arcane teaser pulled from a decade-old DJ Falcon mix, another teaser video featuring a fragment of another single, a release party in an obscure Australian town (and the accompanying videos), a weeklong iTunes free streaming period and then the final, inevitable album release. It might have felt tiresome and self-congratulatory had it not been so flawlessly orchestrated.
Random Access Memories (a play on RAM) is a love letter to music’s analog past and that elusive quality of “soul” that so many feel was lost when sonic time could be chopped and stacked through digital interfaces. It’s ironic, perhaps, that two techno producers who perform behind sci-fi masks and popularized glitzy, synthetic music should romanticize the human and organic, but its always been part of their ethos—the robot helmets simultaneously obscure the performers (Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo) and reflect the audience back at themselves, allowing the androids to anonymously deliver a collectivist human dance experience. “Give Life Back to Music” is, not coincidentally, the album’s opening track, and functions as its mission statement.
The life here comes from live musicians—a bunch of heavyweight studio guys and nary a drum machine—and the music they’re giving back to is late-’70s disco. Chic guitarist Rodgers is the backbone of the enterprise, with contributions by soft-rock singer Paul Williams and Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder. Pre-ordained summer anthem “Get Lucky” is essentially an Earth, Wind and Fire song, while Todd Edwards’ vocal on “Fragments of Time” smarts of Steely Dan. In between the singles, a vague sci-fi framework takes form on the back of instrumental explorations somewhere between livetronic bands like the Disco Biscuits and fellow countrymen Air. Ultimately, there’s so much packed into the record that it’s hard to tell what role Bangalter and de Homem-Christo themselves play.
So, as undeniable and infectious as the record can be, it’s almost inevitable that some disappointment should follow a build-up and roll-out of such astronomical scale. Nostalgia in any artform is a fleeting pleasure, and the only track on Random Access Memories that feels au courant and forward-looking is Panda Bear’s “Doin’ It Right” with its circular construction and clipped rhythm. Still, like the bulk of the record and the genre it revived, its ultimate promise lies in its remix potential. And perhaps this is an extension of the androids’ vision and the album’s long-term roll-out. The only way we’ll know if that life has been given back to music is by listening to what’s created in its wake.