Daft Punk’s fourth proper album, Random Access Memories, has arrived with a level of hype typically reserved for superstar artists. The record is projected to sell between 250,000 and 300,000 copies in the United States in its first week, more than twice the number of copies the French dance duo sold of their third album, Human After All, since it came out in 2005. Their most popular album, Discovery, was released in 2001, and it was certified gold at a time when major artists were still routinely going multiplatinum. From an outside perspective, the incredible excitement around Random Access Memories is unlikely: a modestly successful niche act returning after years of silence to the best sales of their career. But their success isn’t so shocking when you consider that in the time since their last album, Daft Punk began a slow, steady, and methodical branding campaign that has made them household names.
Daft Punk have always been geniuses of marketing. The French duo realized very early on in their career that even if they were making some of the most mind-blowing dance music of their time, they would require a strong visual if they were going to connect with a wide audience. Their first hit, “Da Funk,” made it to MTV on the strength of a video by Spike Jonze featuring a man-sized dog walking through New York City with a boom box. The video for their second hit, “Around the World,” was a collaboration with director Michel Gondry that featured robots and elaborate choreography. These were exciting videos, but at the time, a lot of faceless electronic artists were making visually stunning videos and getting late-night play on MTV. By the time the duo returned with their second album, MTV was phasing out video programming, and they needed to do something else. So they took a cue from Gondry’s clip and bought some robot costumes. This is where the legend of Daft Punk truly begins.
Daft Punk weren’t the first popular act to replace a cult of personality with striking visual branding. Pink Floyd became one of the best-selling acts of all time with cover art by Storm Thorgerson that was as iconic as a corporate logo and far more memorable than the band’s faces, and though relatively few people are familiar with The Grateful Dead’s music, virtually everyone knows their dancing bear logo. Daft Punk took the general idea of ’70s album rock visual aesthetic and pushed it a step further by becoming their own iconography — faceless, yet as exciting and visually memorable as the biggest pop stars. They went even further with this in 2007 when they went on their now legendary “pyramid tour” and gave their DJ set a visual spectacle on par with Pink Floyd’s tour for The Wall. That tour completely changed the arc of their career — their most recent project at the time was the critical and commercial flop Human After All album — and was a crucial moment in terms of popularizing electronic dance music shows in the United States. This is when Daft Punk truly became stars, and a lot of it came down to fans closely associating the over-the-top euphoria of those shows with those stylish robot helmets.
After the pyramid tour, they released a live album and starred in an art film called Electroma, and then went silent for years until they released a soundtrack for Disney’s Tron Legacy in 2010. Each of these projects built on their image but kept their fans wanting more: new songs, a new tour, a headlining slot at Coachella. They built up anticipation and demand to the point where an extremely oblique 15-second ad announcing their new album on Saturday Night Live was itself an event, and then rolled out a promo campaign that amped up enthusiasm without allowing fans to hear much more than snippets of sound aside from the lead single — and bona fide hit! — “Get Lucky.”
The strict, highly mysterious approach to marketing Random Access Memories was perfect for building up anticipation for the music, but it also served as a way of obscuring the fact that the record is a significant departure from the duo’s established sound. When the album inevitably leaked a week before its release, the immediate response from fans on social media ranged from mildly confused to outright horrified. “Get Lucky,” a mid-tempo disco throwback, was about as close as the record comes to a banger, and the general tone of the record was closer to the lightly groovy lounge style of Air, or the crisply produced “Yacht rock” of ’70s stars like Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. Anyone hoping that Daft Punk would come back and reclaim their place as the kings of EDM were left incredibly disappointed.
If anyone else made Random Access Memories, the record would seem completely innocuous, but because it’s Daft Punk, its relentlessly mellow and smooth sound is radical and challenging. You can’t really dance to much of it, though it’s easy to imagine groovy cuts like “Give Life Back to Music,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” and “Doin’ It Right” being remixed into high-energy floor-fillers. About a third of the record is slow and meditative, more of a Sunday morning comedown record than a party-starter. In this sense, Random Access Memories is kind of a bait and switch, but only if you refuse to accept that Daft Punk are artists who are well within their rights to follow their muse. And, like it or not, that means melodramatic prog ballads and a song in which legendary dance producer Giorgio Moroder talks about the magic of music-making as if he’s in a documentary about a much better song. (Maybe “I Feel Love”?)
In a lot of ways, Random Access Memories is not as much of a departure from Daft Punk’s previous work as it seems. All four of their records are designed as classic album experiences, intended to be heard as a whole. Even if you’re not feeling the lite FM sections, it’s hard to argue with the craft and construction of Random Access Memories. It’s composed and recorded with an attention to nuance and fidelity that has more to do with ’70s classics by Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Yes, and Electric Light Orchestra than much of anything on the charts now, let alone in the world of dance music. The most danceable songs are a throwback to the most lavishly arranged music of the disco era – up-tempo Philly soul, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, and most especially Chic, whose guitarist Nile Rodgers provides unmistakable rhythm hooks to three of the tracks, including “Get Lucky.”
It’s likely that on some level, Daft Punk made an album like Random Access Memories because they were in the rare position to actually produce something so incredibly elaborate and costly. Everything on the album was recorded to analog tape in some of the nicest studios in the world, and laid down by the best veteran session musicians in the industry over the course of many, many, many months. This is, in its own way, a show of ostentatious luxury as over the top as anything Kanye West or Jay-Z has ever done. Daft Punk spared no expense in creating an immaculately produced album full of organic sounds when virtually everyone would’ve been thrilled if they’d just made a bunch of fully digital club songs on a laptop.
That fact may be exactly what they’re rebelling against. Sure, this may be the sort of record they’ve always wanted to make if they had the time and the money, but it’s also very clearly a reaction against the electronic dance music scene they were instrumental in popularizing. They’ve pushed their fans into an uncomfortable situation – Do you go along with whatever Daft Punk does because they’re such cool robots and live with the sneaking suspicion that you’re just a sucker for their impeccable marketing? Do you risk looking like a selfish jackass when you dismiss the music for not being exactly what you wanted? Do you just love it for exactly what it is because the music is exactly the kind of thing you’d like regardless of whether or not Daft Punk made it? It almost doesn’t matter how you answer, because at least part of the point of Random Access Memories is to free the audience from the expectation of ever getting another Discovery or pyramid tour. And if you’re disappointed now, the bright side is that you won’t ever be disappointed by them ever again.
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