Yesterday afternoon, I found myself rushing to the train in order to get back to where I had just come from. Aziz Ansari had just tweeted about a last-minute live show, and advised early arrival, as there were only 150 seats available. After I was predictably turned away at 7:05 (the show started at 7:30), I got in touch with some assorted n’er do wells to see if a few beers could salvage the evening. Within an hour, Jen and I were knocking craft brews back at Blind Tiger Ale House, and then, since it was Tuesday and all, we decided to head further uptown to The Blarney Cove.
I mentioned the Cove a few posts back: it’s one of the few true-blue Manhattan dives left in the East Village, but won’t be for long. The place is shuttering just a few months after I even knew of its existence, so we figured a few visits before that fateful day were in order.
Previously, I’d only been to Blarney Cove on the weekends, and judging by the crowd on Tuesday, most of the regulars turn up on off nights to avoid faux-nostalgia hounds like myself. We sat between two guys who had clearly been darkening the doors of the institution for at least a few years: one who looked every inch of late sixties/early seventies, and the other who seemed twenty years fresher than his 51 years. Both were soused, and after the older gentleman gave Jen his Swiss Army knife, and the other yelled at me about Lebron James for a few minutes, he surprised us by asking Jen: “What’s the last album you purchased?” It only took a microsecond for her to reply with the title of Daft Punk’s latest opus.
He hadn’t heard of it, but after listening to our enthusiastic endorsements, especially of the Pharrell-fronted “Get Lucky”, he wandered over to the Internet jukebox to pull it up. We all grooved a little in our chairs, the $3 Rolling Rocks erasing any self-consciousness. After it was over I asked our companion what he thought. He replied: “I think it might be the song of the summer.”
“Get Lucky” has certainly invaded the airspace of New York City. In the past few weeks I’ve heard it blasted out of countless DJ rigs and bar stereo setups. It’s a track perfectly suited for the up-tempo enthusiasm and reckless abandon of a warm night in the Big Apple: infectiously danceable, but laid-back enough to spare the less fleet-footed any awkwardness. It’s the sort of track we all wish Michael Jackson were making near the end of his career, and oddly enough, at least one fan has uploaded a pitch-shifted version of the track that makes Pharrell’s vocals sound an awful lot like the late King of Pop.
The single is an appropriate slice of Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s digital love letter to a more analog time in music history. If RAM has a thematic focus, it’s the constant fluctuation of popular music: part requiem for a time when people danced the night away at clubs and concerts with smiles on their faces instead of iPhones in their hands, and part triumphant rallying cry for a new generation of musicians who have endless soundscapes at their fingertips.
The album begins with the light-hearted “Give Life Back to Music”, a cut that firmly establishes the album’s groovy, 70s disco-funk era sound. Like many of the tracks, this first song isn’t all that danceable, but is a perfect song for those on the periphery of the dance floor. Much of RAM sounds like a soundtrack for good friends who are in the club not to get white-girl wasted or grind on strangers, but to claim some premium table space and knock back a few while admiring the eye candy.
An abrupt shift in tone follows with the forlorn “The Game of Love”. While Daft Punk have been known to venture into the bittersweet (see the career-defining tracks “Digital Love” and “One More Time” from Discovery), they’ve never gotten this downright sad. It’s not a reach to say that the lyrics may be coming from the POV of pop music itself, waxing poetic about the days when artists were as genuinely interested in expressing true love and other emotions as they were in bumping up their twitter follower count and Grammy nominations. Immediately after, things get a little more optimistic with “Giorgio by Moroder”, a sonic history lesson about one of the synthesizer’s most legendary patrons, as well as an exercise in exploiting the untapped infinite space available to electronic musicians (the track evolves into a densely layered ambient synth jam from a simple looped click).
Another navel-gazing tearjerker is up next: the moody and atmospheric “Within”. It’s serviceable for what it is, but seems to be retreading a lot of the same ground as “The Game of Love”. This begins the middle-sag of the album, rounded out by the forgettable “Instant Crush”, but then RAM roars back into top gear with the two Pharrell tracks: “Lose Yourself to Dance” and the aforementioned “Get Lucky”.
“Lose Yourself to Dance” is more a classic funk song than a radio-ready pop hit, but the production piles on in a subtly effective manner until the energy levels are positively throbbing. This track is a perfect example of why an album like RAM deserves either quality speakers or a high-end pair of headphones: the positively magnificent craftsmanship and production quality are tragically lost when pumped through tinny laptop speakers. “Lose Yourself To Dance”, while an undeniably new sound for Daft Punk, brings up many incredible memories from my late 90s/early Aughts club days, when all I needed to have a transcendent experience was a late curfew and a killer lineup at shady 17-and-up venues like The Lizard Lounge or The Red Jacket. The feeling that wells up inside one’s cochlea and then spreads out across the brain pan by the time the song peaks can only be described as “earphoria”.
“Beyond” and “Motherboard” are both slightly spacey, dream sequence type tracks to help us come down from the high-energy bounce of the two dance numbers. “Fragments of Time” is a nuts-and-bolts smooth-rocker, but it’s “Doin’ it Right” that takes us out on a high note. This sparsely produced but undeniably catchy number is begging for some talented DJs to remix it into a more stadium-worthy summer jam with an R&B personality at front and center. “Contact” is a fitting coda to an album that has taken us on a journey through sorrow, reminiscence, and led us into the new scene Daft Punk sees rising out of the ashes, as it calls up images of our French robot friends riding their rock ‘n’ roll funk starship into the stars and beyond.
My friend Hale, who I can credit with starting my fascination with electronic music, remarked that in the past, Daft Punk sounded like robots trying to make music, and that this album sounds like humans trying to make music sound like robots. The use of live recorded session musicians and vintage analog equipment gives RAM a more organic sound, but Daft Punk has always been about using the powerful tools of electronica to emphasize the most powerful aspects of music as a whole: namely love, joy, and a sheer adoration for experience. Random Access Memories is their most complete album to date, if not packed to the brim with the digital stadium-bangers that made them famous.
Nostalgia’s all well and good, but if you can’t back it up with some solid points that are relevant to a contemporary audience, you run the risk of sounding like a senior citizen rambling to themselves. Luckily, Daft Punk have dropped a much needed bomb on the increasingly stale electronic genre with this thoughtful and just plain fun disc that’s sure to dominate the airwaves well into the summer. I guess we all got a little lucky.