Daft Punk’s new album “Random Access Memories” is now #1 on the U.S. charts. I’m going to review it for the things I care about in music, so it’s about to get ugly. If you’re a Daft Punk fan, skip down towards the bottom, because I think they just made music history, and I’m going to finish with a gigantic compliment.
A lot has been made in the news and reviews around this album about the retro nature of its production. Omigod, Daft Punk spent all this enormous amount of money on assembling live musicians and using analog equipment, instead of using digital versions. Well, then It’s a shame all that money and time was spent on such forgettable chords, melodies, and rhythms (I told you I was going to review what I care about—these music fundamentals had better be top-notch in any music labeled “great”). Yes, the production is amazing, the surface feel of the music is polished beyond belief.
Yawn. I’d rather listen to any of hundreds of songs recorded in mono on cheap gear in the 40s, or for that matter, hundreds more recorded in extra-brittle Redbook Audio-spec digital in the 80s, than return to the musical materials on this album for any more listens (I’ve been through it four times, which is three more than the *music* itself, as music, deserves). This is a classic case of silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Where are the brilliant melodies, groundbreaking rhythms, stunning chord progressions? Absent, that’s where.
A lot more has been made about the retro styles of music on offer here: funk, disco, 70s soft rock, a rock opera from 1974. Whatever. Personally, if I want 70s popular music, I’ll just play some—I don’t need it recycled in forgettable vehicles like the ones I found on this album. You’re not going to find me playing disco in any case, so I’ll admit to falling well outside the apparent taste domain there. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the appeal of Daft Punk in previous incarnations was not clumsily done musical-style nostalgia, it was the amazing shock of the new: Daftendirekt is going to blow my mind no matter how many times I hear it, apparently; the vocal of “Harder Better Faster Stronger” was a revelation worth having.
Yes, it’s a concept album, with all sorts of odd bits tacked on—an interview, the radio communication near the end, sudden stops and starts, instant changes of texture. Probably it will be fun for some listeners to connect the dots on the concept, so have fun, and again it’s a shame to waste all that attention to structure and meaning on a vehicle with such weak musical materials.
The voice at ~36 minutes in (“Touch”) is painful to listen to. The fact that it provides a striking contrast to the textures just before it does not pay for the severely flawed technique, the wobble, smeared pitches, the choked and strained timbre—Yes, yes, it’s **supposed** to sound that way, it’s on purpose. **I get it**. I’m saying that is far from enough to justify my ever listening to the thin-to-the-point-of-disappearing music that’s going on here.
BUT. Here’s the thing. There are dozens of points on this album when Daft Punk **does** use their more modern tricks, and the main one I’m after here is the vocal processing, specifically the vocoding that transforms dramatically the way the text gets to your ears (technically, the frequency spectra of an actual voice is used to modulate a second sound source, which could be practically anything, as long as it covers the frequency bands). “Game of Love” uses this voice throughout.
In the past, vocoding and its aural cousin autotuning was a kind of sound engineering stunt. We paid attention to it for its novelty, but it had a definite flattening effect on the emotive quality of the sung melody. Okay for fun electro-dance pieces, bravura tricks like “Do You Feel Like We Do”, and of course used a thousand times (not least by Daft Punk) to evoke a robotic quality. That was a pretty narrow playground of ways to use this processing trick. If you’ve been following pop music the last few years, you’ve heard an enormous wave of backlash against radical autotuning in particular.
But now, these techniques are suddenly out of their ghetto. Daft Punk has taken the state of the art FAR forward in this album. The moment at ~9:07 in “Game of Love” is marvelous: “I just wanted you to stay” is a vocal sound that can stand up next to a lot of great, deeply felt popular music (classical is another question entirely), in terms of pure expressiveness. I’m not saying it’s Robert Plant doing the last line in “Stairway To Heaven”. That’s still another league entirely.
I **am** saying, Daft Punk just broke the field wide open in terms of vocal possibilities for the next several decades of popular music. Used with extraordinary skill (always true of vocals of any kind, processed or otherwise), this approach can successfully carry the listener through a wide range of passionate emotions. Daft Punk just proved it. I will grudgingly accept that Daft Punk accepted a big challenge, and succeeded, by placing those vocal sounds in these retro materials and ultra-smooth sound. We already know what those soft rock/punk/disco vocals are supposed to sound like in typical human singing voices. If they failed to match their vocoded sounds to the *feel* of that music, the effect would have been glaring and painful indeed.
They did not fail, they succeeded like crazy. This album should send hundreds, thousands of musicians running to their studios, to take their own favorite kinds of music, and figure out (no doubt through endless hours of painstaking accumulation of skills) how to use this vocal power in new musical works all over the map. I want to hear some hard rock done this way; some 12-bar blues. Some opera!
Way to go, Daft Punk, and thank you.