Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories" (Columbia) -- In 1984, before most of us owned a personal computer, novelist William Gibson coined the word "cyberspace." His spatial concept of a digital functionality -- a place that one jacks into -- set the tone for two decades of understanding about virtuality as an in-the-box idea and seeded pop culture for everything through "The Matrix." In his 2007 novel, Spook Country, however, Gibson killed off his own concept. Cyberspace is a metaphorical illusion, he concluded as he observed the ubiquitous, out-of-the-box computing functions that now pervade everyday reality. "There isn't any cyberspace, is there?" considers one character. "There never was, if you want to look at it that way. It was a way we had of looking where we were headed, a direction."
Consider the acronym EDM and all its various cumbersome and hyphenated forbearers as music's "cyberspace," and consider Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" as the concept's command-Q keystroke.
Daft Punk's first full record in eight years (unless 2010's disappointing "Tron: Legacy" soundtrack counts), "RAM" is not a great record overall -- dull in spots, self-indulgent throughout -- but it is a valuable, instructive one. "It's not that we can't make crazy futuristic sounding stuff," explains Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, half of the enigmatic, robot-helmeted duo with Thomas Bangalter, "but we wanted to play with the past." This is exactly what they do across the long sprawl of their aptly titled new album.
While contemporary hipsters have been salivating all over social media about this album's eagerly anticipated new EDM salvo, Daft Punk -- themselves partially responsible for establishing electronic dance music's long-awaited foothold -- instead has delivered a potent reminder that classifications are permeable and hyphens have history. Just as Disco Demolition Night was part of a reactionary overgeneralization of a music style that contained plenty of diamonds amid its rough, the massive hype preceding "RAM" (and the corresponding confusion and occasional let-down once the album started streaming last week) illuminates our rush to box up electronic music into one particular acronym, complete with its concomitant and unforgiving rules of style.
Opening with "Give Life Back to Music," a simple mid-tempo groove with some loose-wrist guitar and a vocoded refrain, "RAM" strives to return life at least to dance music. A bevy of guests, mostly heroes from the duo's beloved 1970s and '80s big-money pop and disco records, contributes to what ultimately becomes a giant memory mash-up, a remix of what they all recall "dance music" used to sound and feel like -- perhaps not from a dancefloor. The nine-minute "Giorgio by Moroder" features synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder, 73, speaking about his hand in crafting "the sound of the future." Paul Williams, one of America's best songwriters with a heyday in the '70s, wrote and sings the typically sentimental eight-minute "Touch," a kind of jaunty post-"Yoshimi" robot yearning. Guests aren't all geezers: the Strokes' Julian Casablancas remains in falsetto mode for the tepid (and the album's least innovative track) "Instant Crush" and Animal Collective's Panda Bear tries "Doin' It Right." The two Pharrell Williams neo-disco tracks are repetitive and insipid even for dance music, and the album is rife with attention-drifting moments.
But music has many uses, and what we usually refer to as dance music is deployed more often in living rooms and on commutes than at sweaty raves. "RAM" is driven by elements familiar to dance music, but none of it raves. The trancey flute-fugue of "Motherboard" or the Burt Bacharach-esque ballad "The Game of Love" are not commanding of immediate attention; however, they possess a slow-hand seductiveness that's not liable to recede too quickly, either. "RAM" plays well enough at home; undoctored, it'll be dreadfully boring live. So the long result of this album's blend of songcraft and sounds should be a Gibson-ish realization crucial to many millennials: There is no dance music, is there? Indeed, there never was, if you want to look at it that way ...