Random Access Memories
They wear chrome helmets. They sound like robots. They operate a custom-made synthesizer console with 933 knobs on the front of it. They're French.
If all that sounds like a highly unlikely formula for mainstream success in the U.S., well, ponder this: These two DJs from Paris, whom Rolling Stone described as "compulsively secret" and "the most enigmatic superstars in pop," now have the No. 1 album in America after nearly two decades of directly influencing and shaping the global electronic music dance scene.
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have been at the forefront of the EDM scene (the genre formerly known as electronica or house music) almost since its inception. But anyone expecting a thumping, throbbing, synth-laden album might be surprised at what Random Access Memories actually contains. There are plenty of synths, to be sure, not the least of which are the vocoders that generate those robotic-sounding voices. But most of this album feels very much like it could have been released at the height of the disco era, filled as it is with wacka-chicka guitars, funky bass lines and dreamy strings.
Rolling Stone reports that Thomas Bangalter is Jewish, though not religious. But while there's nothing inherently religious or overtly spiritual on Random Access Memories, there does seem to be a melancholy longing for a transcendent experience. Album opener "Give Life Back to the Music," for instance, repeats the phrase, "Let the music of your life/Give life back to the music."
A bit later on, "Within" expresses a desire to know oneself and to be known by others: "There are so many things that I don't understand/There's a world within me that I cannot explain/ … I am lost, I can't even remember my name/I've been, for some time, looking for someone/Fighting to know them/Please tell me who I am." That search for connection also turns up on "Touch" (featuring singer Paul Williams, who, for the record, doesn't sound like a robot). The song hints at our desire for physical intimacy ("Touch, sweet touch/You've given me too much to feel"), while at the same time expressing the idea that as important as such a touch might be, our souls crave something more. Repeated is this enigmatic observation: "Hold on/If love is the answer, you're home."
That ineffable desire turns up again on "Beyond," where we hear, "Dream, beyond dreams/Beyond life, you will find your song/ … Close your eyes/Then rise, higher still, endless thrill/To the land of love beyond love/ … Remember, love's our only mission/This is the journey of the soul." The conclusion? "Your home's a promise long forgotten/It is the birthplace of your dreams."
A man longing for a beautiful moment to go on forever (on "Fragments of Time") has to settle for holding on to cherished memories from the past ("I'll just keep playing back/These fragments of time/Everywhere I go/These moments will shine"). And "The Game of Love" finds a brokenhearted man affirming his steadfast commitment to a woman who's left him ("You decided to walk away/ … Me, I just wanted you to stay").
Daft Punk's craving for wholeness and "home," however, sometimes gets funneled into the suggestion that dancing and music alone can fulfill such spiritual yearnings on "Lose Yourself to Dance" and "Doin' It Right." Or, in the case of "Contact," possibly into the idea of UFOs.
Pharrell Williams guests on the album's most problematic track, "Get Lucky," an ode to hedonism and the desire for casual sex. He hopes a night of partying will lead to even more carnal pleasure, singing, "She's up all night till the sun/I'm up all night to get some/She's up all night for good fun/I'm up all night to get lucky." "Touch" also dabbles in suggestive sensuality with, "Kiss, suddenly alive/Happiness arrive/Hunger like a storm/How do I begin?"
There was a time, not long ago, when a quirky, independent band such as Daft Punk never could have hoped to top the charts. But in the fragmented Internet age, formerly underground groups like this one are exactly the kind that benefit most from online buzz that builds over time. And it certainly doesn't hurt that music critics are writing things like "[Daft Punk's] return should be heralded from on high, because it is the boldest, smartest, most colourful and purely pleasurable dance album of this decade." (That's from The Telegraph's Neil McCormick.)
How are they using their time at the top? To their credit, the guys in Daft Punk intuitively seem to recognize their longing for a meaning and purpose that's bigger than themselves. Sometimes, though, they slide too easily into the suggestion that those legitimate desires can be fully satisfied in the combination of music, dancing and perhaps sex—maybe no surprise for an act that's been a staple in the rave scene for nearly 20 years.