Random Access Memories
There is an early Daft Punk track named “Teachers” that, effectively, served as a roll call for the French duo’s influences: Paul Johnson, DJ Funk, DJ Sneak. Within the context of 1997’s Homework, “Teachers” presented the group as bright kids ready to absorb the lessons of those who came before them. But it also marked Daft Punk as a group with a strong, dynamic relationship to the past whose music served an almost dialogic function: They weren’t just expressing themselves, they were talking to their inspirations—a conversation that spanned countries, decades, styles and technological revolutions. So while the live-band-driven sound of 2013’s Random Access Memories was a curveball, it was also a logical next step.
The theatricality that had always been part of their stage show and presentation found its musical outlet (“Giorgio by Moroder”, the Paul Williams feature “Touch”), and the soft-rock panache they started playing with on 2001’s Discovery got a fuller, more earnest treatment (“Within”, the Julian Casablancas feature “Instant Crush”, the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-The-Doobie-Brothers moves of “Fragments of Time”). The concept, as much as the album had one, was to suggest that as great as our frictionless digital world may be, there was a sense of adventurousness and connection to the spirit of the ’70s that, if not lost, had at least been subdued. “Touch” was “All You Need Is Love” for the alienation of a post-Space Odyssey universe; “Give Life Back to Music” wasn’t just there to set the scene, it was a command—just think of all the joy music has brought you. “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance”—spotlights both for Pharrell and the pioneering work of Chic’s Nile Rodgers—recaptured the innocence of early disco and invited their audience to do the same.
There was joy in it, but there was melancholy, too: Here was a world seen through the rear-view, beautiful in part because you couldn’t quite go back to it. “As we look back at the Earth, it’s, uh, up at about 11 o’clock, about, uh, well, maybe 10 or 12 diameters,” the sampled voice of astronaut Eugene Cernan says on “Contact”. “I don't know whether that does you any good. But there's somethin’ out there.” This was the Apollo 17 mission, December 1972. It remains the last time humans have been on the moon.