Daft Punk: Accessing Electronic Music's Humanity

May 22, 2013
Originally published on May 22, 2013 11:08 am

I freely admit that, until the new Random Access Memories, I wasn't much of a Daft Punk fan. I could appreciate the craft and imagination that went into creating the French duo's mixture of electronic genres — techno, house, disco — but the mechanical repetitions and heavily filtered vocals didn't turn me on in any other way.

But now, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have come up with an album that exposes the human side of their musical impulses. It's the equivalent of removing the helmet-masks the pair invariably wears in public performances. Random Access Memories is a collection filled with music that suggests mad romance, heartache and an embrace of the past that's never merely nostalgic or sentimental.

"Get Lucky," the album's superb first single, features lead vocals from Pharrell Williams and guitar work by Nile Rodgers, who co-founded the great disco band Chic in the '70s. The rhythm of "Get Lucky" is lushly irresistible and a perfect example of what seems to have struck Daft Punk's members, now in their late 30s, as a revelation: After years of constructing their music by sampling bits of other artists' beats and riffs, using technology to strip dance music down to its essence, they want to build their sound back up with fresh humanity. They do it by largely avoiding samples on Random Access Memories, having Rodgers and others play real guitars and inviting other, non-mechanized voices to do some of the vocal work. These collaborators range from Pharrell to Paul Williams — yes, the Paul Williams who wrote '70s hits such as The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun."

One of my favorite cuts on the album is "Fragments of Time," which features a vocal by Todd Edwards and sounds a little like vintage Steely Dan, sleek and serenely clever. "Turning our days into melodies," goes a line in that Daft Punk track, and it's this new desire to create songs that you and I could sing along to — to maintain the intensity and rhythms of dance music while letting it take a human breath — that gives Random Access Memories its touching vulnerability. Daft Punk still makes appearances in helmets, but its members' feelings are no longer masked. Turns out these would-be robots are romantics, but they're not old softies. This is music that uses its creators' thorough sense of pop history to create a sense of uplift, purpose and passion.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Daft Punk is a French music act that has been releasing albums since 1997. They appear on stage in helmets that disguise their faces and have long specialized in impersonal but catchy electronic music. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says their new album "Random Access Memories" is a departure, an attempt to add a more human sound to their music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSTANT CRUSH")

DAFT PUNK: (singing) I didn't want to be the one to forget. I thought of everything I'd never regret. A little time with you is all that I get. That's all we meant because it's all we can take. One thing I know...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I freely admit that, until the new album, I wasn't much of a Daft Punk fan. I could appreciate the craft and imagination that went into creating their mixture of electronic genres - techno, house, disco - but the mechanical repetitions and vocals run through filters didn't turn me on in any other way.

But now, the French duo that comprises Daft Punk, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, have come up with an album that exposes the human side of their musical impulses. It's the equivalent of removing the helmet-masks the pair invariably wears in public performances. "Random Access Memories" is a collection filled with music suggesting mad romance, heartache and an embrace of the past that's never merely nostalgic or sentimental.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET LUCKY")

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (singing) Like the legend of the phoenix, all ends were beginnings. What keeps the planet spinning, oh, the force from the beginning. We've come too far to give up who we are. So let's raise the bar and our cups to the stars. She's up all night to 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.

(singing) We're up all night to the sun. We're up all night to get some. We're up all night for good fun. We're up all night to get lucky. We're up all night to get lucky. We're up all night to get lucky. We're up all night to get lucky. We're up all night to get lucky.

TUCKER: That's "Get Lucky," the album's first single, a superb track featuring lead vocals from Pharrell Williams and guitar work by Nile Rodgers, the man who co-founded the great disco band Chic in the '70s. The rhythm of "Get Lucky" is lushly irresistible. It's a perfect example of what seems to have struck the Daft Punk boys, now in their late 30s, as a revelation.

After years of constructing their music by sampling bits of other artists' beats and riffs, using technology to strip dance music down to its essence, they want to build their sound back up with a fresh humanity. They do it by largely avoiding samples on this new album, having Rodgers and others play real guitars and inviting other, non-mechanized voices to do some of the vocal work. These range from Pharrell to Paul Williams - yes, the Paul Williams who wrote '70s hits such as The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun."

One of my favorite cuts on the album is "Fragments of Time," which features a vocal by Todd Edwards and sounds a little like a vintage Steely Dan track, sleek and serenely clever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRAGMENTS OF TIME")

TODD EDWARDS: (singing) Driving this road down to paradise, letting the sunlight into my eyes. Our only plan is to improvise and it's crystal clear that I don't ever want it to end. If I had my way, I would never leave. Keep building these random memories. Turning our days into melodies. But since I can't stay I'll just keep playing back these fragments of time. Everywhere I go, these moments will shine. I'll just keep playing back these fragments of time. Everywhere I go, these moments will shine.

TUCKER: Turning our days into melodies, goes a line in that Daft Punk composition, and it's this new desire to create songs that you and I could sing along to - to maintain the intensity and rhythms of dance music while letting it take a human breath - that gives "Random Access Memories" its touching vulnerability.

Daft Punk still makes appearances in helmets, but their feelings are no longer masked. Turns out these would-be robots are romantics, but they're not old softies. This is music that uses its creators' thorough sense of pop history to create a sense of uplift, purpose and passion.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Daft Punk's new album "Random Access Memories."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DOIN' IT RIGHT")

DAFT PUNK: (singing) Doing it right everybody will be dancing and we'll feeling all right. Everybody will dancing and be doing it right. Everybody will be dancing and be doing it right. Everybody will be dancing and feeling all right. Everybody will be dancing tonight, doing it right. Everybody will be dancing and will feeling it right. Everybody will be dancing and be doing it right. Everybody will be dancing and feeling all right. Everybody will be dancing tonight, doing it right. Everybody will be dancing and will feeling all right. Everybody will be dancing and be doing it right. Everybody will be dancing and we're feeling all right. Everybody will be dancing tonight, doing it right. Everybody will be dancing and will feeling all right.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.