Of all the genius promotional things Daft Punk did prior to last week’s iTunes leak of Random Access Memories—the SNL & Coachella ads, the secretive websites, the weird collaborators interviews—putting “Get Lucky” out as the album’s first single was the wisest. It has already crushed all comers in the summer song category, it’s the album’s most playable song, and it is, in no way at all really, indicative of what the rest of Random Access Memories sounds like. No one could have predicted it a month ago, but Daft Punk just used Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers and “Get Lucky” as a Trojan horse to trick people into downloading an album that is inspired by, in turns, Steely Dan, AOR pop schmaltz, Boz Scaggs, and mid ‘70s peak-era disco. This is one of the better– and most unlikely–developments in music in this, the year of our robot overlords, 2013.
Because here’s the thing: Daft Punk realized it would be a zero sum game to try to top 2001’s Discovery, an album that inadvertently helped germinate the EDM boom (seriously, what have will.i.am and Aviici and Deadmau5 been doing but trying to recreate “One More Time”?). They already bricked the follow-up to Discovery once, by doubling down on the rockist moves and the elegant, but empty minimalism with Human After All. So they went as far as they could in the opposite direction. They may have created the market for paying $150 to watch flashing lights and guys playing with computers, but this album has less to do with beating EDM and the Skrillexes of today, and more to do with Daft Punk trying to match Aja, Silk Degrees, and Risque track for track. Daft Punk are not going down a weight class to match up against EDM enfant terribles; they’re competing against the forgotten pop songs of their childhoods.
Undoubtedly, this is not the album that the most casual enjoyer of “Get Lucky” signed up for. It’d be hard to imagine, even two weeks ago, that it would be possible to be knocked out by a Daft Punk song featuring ‘70s star songwriter Paul Williams, star of the recent documentary about how he is in fact, still alive (last year’s Still Alive). Or to believe Daft Punk would make the best Strokes song since 2003 by turning Julian Casablancas into a sad robot. Or that the song with Panda Bear wouldn’t be a disaster, and instead would be a song that bodies his entire solo oeuvre. The not-so-subtle way that the anodyne Random Access Memories subverts your expectations for a multimedia, multi-quadrant pop cultural event ends up being one of its strongest selling points.
Another is how, instead of building their grooves in the 0s and 1s, Daft Punk went out and hired guys who played for Michael Jackson and Madonna, and had them record hours of raw material to build their opuses with. The biggest get was Nile Rodgers—he who invented disco guitar playing, more or less—to lay down fretwork on “Give Life Back to Music”, “Get Lucky”, and the other Pharrell-assisted banger “Lose Yourself to Dance”, that could be ensconced in the Smithsonian. Its sound is so historic and perfect, and the idea is so simple that it’s almost radical. Daft Punk wanted to make songs that sound like Risque, so they went out and paid the guy who played on that.
That commitment to the authentic and excessive gives RAM an expensive sheen that makes it sound like it was created in the era when radio men could be plied with free cocaine, albums all cost a million bucks, and your collaborators happened to be whoever was around. Paul Williams, writer of some of the most tearjerkingist tracks of all time (“Rainbow Connection” chief amongst them), gives the album’s most affecting performance on “Touch”, RAM’s emotional core. A space epic featuring a children’s choir and lyrics about needing love, it cuts deep. Italo-disco god Giorgio Moroder shows up to talk about inventing disco—and I mean literally talk; he sounds like he was recorded at a Starbucks—and to serve as the preacher extoling the virtues of Daft Punk’s approach on RAM itself. House O.G. Todd Edwards, meanwhile, subs in for Donald Fagen on “Fragments of Time”, delivering the best Steely Dan song since “My Old School”. Daft Punk’s earlier albums showcased their ear for making future forward dance music; this album’s greatest strength is its perfect selection of collaborators. Even the unlikeliest team-ups (particularly Panda Bear’s “Doin’ It Right”) work like gangbusters.
Ultimately, it’s not hard to see– even if they’re dead wrong– the perspective of people who declared RAM a bust hours after it leaked last week. This is an album made for kids who spent their formative years in the backseats of their parents’ cars, listening to AOR like it was catnip. It’s the kind of album that would have been a pretty easy sell in 1975, but in 2013, it’s out of step with every musical genre to the point where it is its own solar system. That Daft Punk just used their considerable clout to make an album—the year’s best so far, it should be noted– that is equal parts total cheese and total greatness can’t be ignored. Daft Punk spent a decade and a half convincing people that they’re not like the rest of us—they’re robots, after all—but it turns out they’re inspired by the same guilty pleasures as the rest of us.