Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Random Access Memories: Have You Heard the Good News about Disco?

One of the few remarkable things about the new Daft Punk album is the utter lack of deviation, on the part of basically every music critic in America, from the myth of its creation. Looking for an angle, every reviewer seems to repeat a more or less overt version of this story: Daft Punk, having taken the EDM they invented to its tepid extreme with Human After All and vanished in shame, have come back to atone for their past sins. In the yawning eight-year gap between the last album and Random Access Memories, dozens of usurpers have clawed their way to the electronic throne, from Justice to Skrillex to LCD Soundsystem; now the robots have returned, not to take back their rightful place at the top of the EDM pantheon, but to obliterate the pantheon completely.

Which is a nice way of saying that they made an album with no samples. Or not a lot of samples. An album that revels in a different kind of artificiality than their other albums, anyway, a slick analog artificiality rather than a robotic digital one. Whatever they've made, the critics love it: Matthew Horton at NME, as an illustrative example, raves about the opening track's "stupendously vast rock intro" and the way "everything goes ape" on the Giorgio Moroder tribute. I'll let you decide for yourself on that last one. Usually at the end of the review there's some wimpy caveat about how the album is bloated and egomaniacal, but either that's a forgettable detail or, conversely, it's actually crucial to the album's success—Will Hermes at Rolling Stone says the album is "a victim of its own ambition," but "it wouldn't be half as awesome a ride if it had aimed any lower." 

If it's not clear yet, these are reviews that will themselves into positivity. Pitchfork's Mark Richardson notes the album's "mix of disco, soft rock, and prog-pop, along with some Broadway-style pop bombast and even a few pinches of their squelching stadium-dance aesthetic," which makes the album sound so bad that it's almost revolting when he praises it, like listening to someone talk cheerfully about why they enjoy eating mud. That NME review is really the clincher: it praises the resemblance of "Fragments of Time" to Wings, Cliff Richard, and even 70s sitcom themes and somehow calls the sludgy Paul Williams ballad "Touch" both "gout-inducingly indulgent" and "magnificent." These reviews look directly at the terrible things about this album and pronounce them good. If this isn't a little disquieting, I'll refer you to Comrade O'Brien.

Sasha Frere-Jones has the best understanding of the album's weirdly Orwellian nature: he writes, "I replay parts of Random Access Memories repeatedly while simultaneously thinking it is some of the worst music I've ever heard." The record raises what he calls a "radical question: Does good music need to be good?"

Forgive me, but I don't see how this is a radical question at all—isn't it one of the most mundane facts of life since Tin Pan Alley that the catchiest, funnest music is usually also worthless? Who hasn't found themselves humming along to an Air Supply song at the grocery store? Catchy, well-produced schlock isn't remarkable by any means. Good music doesn't have to be good, and we all know it.

Random Access Memories is remarkable, though, in the way it wears its heartlessness on its sleeve. Standard-issue "popcraft" doesn't enter into it, nor does its bruited retro recording process. If Random Access Memories is really about reprocessing Los Angeles circa 1981, then its real success isn't in recording or composition, it's in the adoption of the entire callous, cynical mindset of the epoch that gave us "Hey Nineteen" and "Africa." Not only the mindset, but also the entire industrial organization of the album—the welter of guest producers, guest songwriters and guest musicians, some of whom are as washed up today as Cliff Richard himself was when he came back in the late 70s, and the compositional style, which is as deliberately lethargic as anything on Gaucho. Daft Punk are method acting here, dedicating themselves to evoking in every detail the mythical heyday of the LP, an imaginary time when mad genius producers roamed LA in quest of the perfect concept album. Most of the albums from this era, in retrospect, are unbearable, but you have to respect the insane dedication that went into their creation. Daft Punk have dedicated themselves to simulating this madness. By any musical standard, the album is dumb, forgettable fun, but we're clearly meant to evaluate it as a performance, not as an object, which is exactly what the critics are doing.

As an important sidenote, it's very much a mythical heyday that Daft Punk are hearkening back to, as mythical as Jack White's British Invasion or Fleet Foxes' preindustrial utopia. I think that's the key to the performance; if it weren't a myth, it wouldn't be so impressive to replicate it. It's critical to Daft Punk's interpretation that the epoch they appropriate is intangible. Like Swinging London for Jack White or the American frontier (I guess) for Fleet Foxes, and like the 50s for Ronald Reagan and the 60s for the left today, a historical era has to lose substance, flatten itself into a set of stories and values, for it to be worth simulating. The difference between Daft Punk and these other luminaries is that the others all foreground the authenticity of their eras, the studio craftsmanship, honest labor, white picket fences or free love, while Daft Punk zeroes in on the inauthenticity.

Random Access Memories is so unapologetic, so blatant, so relentless in its phoniness that it attains a grim determination you don't usually see outside of religious zealots. The ironic distance provided by those stupid robots suits is gone; they've become so ritualized and expected that it's not possible to read the album as some kind of big joke, and it would almost be more insulting if it were. I'll hand it to them that they've found a way out of the sincerity/insincerity binary that pop music has been caught in for the last decade or so, but they've done it by pledging something like blind faith. The critics seem to love it, though, and a lot of their love seems to stem from that faith. Maybe the world needs Jesus after all.

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