Adam Wray has never even been to Mount Vesuvius.
I have this memory that’s triggered any time I hear Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun”: I’m blasting down the Pacific Coast Highway in a white convertible, carving corners a little too fast, and golden hour sunshine is glinting off a calm ocean. It feels hyperreal, and that’s because it is – this is not a real memory, at least not for me. I’ve never been to California and I’ve never driven a convertible. I don’t even have a driver’s license. But I can recall the particulars of this imagined event more vividly than those of some that have actually happened to me. The song makes me nostalgic for an experience I’ve never had, and I’d wager I’m not the only one who relates to Fleetwood Mac in this way. This is why they’ve enjoyed such sustained popularity and continue to find an audience in a generation that was a decade away from birth when they were in their heyday. Whether they set out to or not, Fleetwood Mac made legacy music that means something to a whole lot of people, and in doing so earned themselves a few decades of artistic immortality.
Daft Punk cites Rumours as a major touchstone for Random Access Memories, and you needn’t have heard a lick of the latter to get why. The Robots made their intentions crystal clear with the record’s elaborate promotional campaign: they are trying to deliver more-than-music, out-of-body experiences, tunes that take you somewhere else. From the album’s high-profile guests and the breathless, mystic musings of their Collaborators videos to the symbolic weight of the famous studios used to record the album, Daft Punk went to great lengths to bathe Random Access Memories in numinous light, to create an emotional connection between the work and the listener based on anecdotes, imagery, and a fifteen second loop. For better or for worse, they have ensured you’re bringing baggage to this record.
Whatever it was you were expecting, Random Access Memories is not that. It might be partly that, but it’s a whole lot of other things, too. It is a strange record relative to the 2013 mainstream, and it’s tough to wrap your ears around it in just a handful of listens. No matter how many times you’ve watched the Collaborators interviews, some part of the album will shock you. It’s baroque as a joke, with no consistent aesthetic. There are about as many misses as there are hits, and its sequencing is curious to the point of self-sabotage.
The record starts strong. “Give Life Back To Music” works as an overture, doing a fine job of setting the tone. “The Game of Love” is the record’s strongest slow jam, sounding more than a little like Sade and no worse for it. The sprawling “Giorgio By Moroder” is absurd on paper but spectacular in your headphones, the record’s greatest achievement. Much has been made of this album’s sky-high production values, and “Giorgio” showcases the full spectrum, from the warmth of Moroder’s voice, to the depth of the orchestral swells, to the crispness of Omar Hakim’s drums in the concluding, full-band freak-out.
Then, the Robots lose the plot. “Within” kills the momentum with mawkish noodling, and “Instant Crush” sounds feeble and disposable. “Touch” is preposterously overcooked. “Lose Yourself To Dance” and “Get Lucky” are the record’s most approachable tunes, but they’re also its safest. “Lose Yourself To Dance” is infectious, from its steady stomp to its lithe, bouncy riff. Pharrell knocks his part out of the park, and Nile Roger’s guitar work is his most memorable contribution to the record. “Get Lucky” remains a steel-solid floor-filler, though the album version is bloated, stretching out over six minutes without covering any new ground – the radio edit accomplishes more with less, and you wish they’d left well enough alone.
In this way, Random Access Memories is a frustrating listen – it never does what you expect it to do or think it should, surprising you in ways that are neither satisfying in the moment nor upon reflection. “Doin’ It Right” is a perfect example. It shows immense potential, but it’s frustratingly underdeveloped. Panda Bear’s plaintive vocals float above a vocodered chant anchored by a steady drumbeat and hip-deep bass swells. The tune ends after four minutes, but it doesn’t feel over – it presents all these possibilities but leaves them unexplored. On a record so comfortably over-the-top, it’s strange that they’d pick this moment to show some restraint. Even so, “Doin’ It Right” hits me as the record’s beating heart because it’s the first time in nearly an hour of music that Daft Punk sound like themselves. Even with its shortcomings, it’s one of the only places I really felt connected to the material.
And therein lies my biggest beef with the album. Daft Punk set out to write tributes to some of the music that shaped them – to, ahem, give life back to music with the music of their lives. What they’ve ended up with is a bunch of competent facsimiles that, without exception, fail to improve upon the originals. “Fragments of Time” is a fine piece of pastiche, but if I wanted to listen to Steely Dan, I would listen to Steely Dan. The Nile/Pharrell tunes are great, and I will happily dance to them all summer, but they offer nothing new. I’m not sure why I’d return to them when I could listen to the originals as easily. The attention to detail the Robots show in recreating their best-loved tunes goes a long way to making them funky, but it torpedoes their chances of ever having the originals’ undeniable appeal. Random Access Memories‘ best moments come when Daft Punk fold their influences into each other rather than recreate them one-by-one. “Giorgio By Moroder” works because it’s unlike anything you’ve heard before. “Contact” works because it sounds like Daft Punk adding to their sound rather than trying on someone else’s.
If you want to hate this record, I encourage you to – there are many fine reasons to do so. Hate it for its clownishly condescending promotional campaign. Hate it for the unctuous implication that you that you can’t make soulful music on a laptop. Hate it for spotlighting certain collaborators while ignoring others – drummers John “J.R.” Robinson and Omar Hakim play roles as central as Nile Rogers and get a shred of the cred. Hate it for its bathos, its unevenness, or its self-indulgence. Or, take it for what it is: a deeply flawed, impeccably executed collection of ideas great and terrible. There’s something in it for everyone, and you’ve no obligation to take it as a whole.
It’s sort of like Moroder says on his track: “Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being “correct,” you can do whatever you want.” Toss “Lose Yourself To Dance” on the back end of a Sister Sledge record, where it belongs. Picture Kermit the Frog singing “Touch.” Frame the whole thing as a concept album about a disco dancer who’s lost the use of his legs. Recreate the album with the songs it cribs from. There are no rules. I have a suggestion, though: don’t overthink it, and don’t take it as seriously as its creators have encouraged you to. Try not to cling too tightly to your initial opinions, either – there is a lot to unpack here, and it will take some time to really grasp it. Put it this way: there is a fair chance I’ll disagree with everything I’ve written here in a month’s time. And I am totally cool with that.