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Why Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ Won’t Save Electronic Music

These are strange times for electronic music. The rise of what the US insists on calling EDM means the genre’s more popular than it’s ever been. A second wave of superstar DJs walk the globe, commanding crazy appearance fees and lengthy GQ profiles. Into all of this comes the return of Daft Punk, the duo that somehow ended up as the biggest electronic act of the 1990s and is thus indirectly responsible for at least partially kick-starting the metamorphosis of electronic music from niche genre to commercial behemoth.

Quite why Daft Punk became so massive in the first place is an interesting question. They were well-respected in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when they released their first two records (which remain their best), but at some point during the mid-’00s, they suddenly became megastars. Why? And how? After all, as a friend of your correspondent pointed out this morning, “The record with ‘One More Time’ on it was pretty good, but so was that Basement Jaxx record that came out around the same time, and nobody decided they were Jesus.”

The simple answer, perhaps, is that Basement Jaxx never wore crazy helmets and played in a pyramid. As Spin‘s Daniel Kreps points out in his excellent chronology of the duo’s rise to global celebrity, “Millennials reminisce about Daft Punk’s 2007 tour in the same way baby boomers won’t shut up about Woodstock.” This is 100% true — when they played in my home country, Australia, on that tour, it became a sort of shared spiritual experience amongst practically everyone I’d ever met.

Tracing Daft Punk’s chronology, though, it becomes clear how little of the duo’s rise had to do with, y’know, their actual music — the impetus for that era-defining tour was a stinker of a record (2005′s Human After All), which also means they haven’t released a decent album in over a decade. Perhaps this helps to explain why Random Access Memories has been so highly anticipated. And expectations have certainly been high — every little snippet of information about the album was reported breathlessly by the music press.

It’s almost unavoidable that the album itself is something of a letdown, but even with that in mind, it’s shocking just how dull it is. The intro to Pitchfork’s Daft Punk cover story describes them as “helmet-clad retro-futurists” and claims that they’re “embarking on a new mission: to make music breathe again.” But there’s nothing futuristic about this record. It’s straight-up retro — startlingly so, in fact.

Spotting the references is fun in a horror-show sort of way: “Motherboard” sounds like something off this. “Fragments of Time” sounds like Wings covering Steely Dan (badly). “Contact” even involves horrible Australian ’70s band Sherbert, for Chrissakes, a staple of antipodean golden oldies radio that is about as relevant in 2013 as Boston or Supertramp.

As a whole, the record comes across as a ’70s disco/yacht rock pastiche, which would be fine if it were even a decent attempt at either of those genres, or if it were putting some sort of a modern spin on them, or adding anything at all. The expectation is that, as alleged innovators, Daft Punk would take these sounds and influences and elevate them — after all, their music has always taken significant inspiration from disco (take “Music Sounds Better With You,” the global mega-hit for Thomas Bangalter’s Stardust side project, which could have walked straight off a best-of-the-’70s compilation).

But this record, and the whole mindset that seems to underpin it, is grounded in curiously conservative ideas of “realness” and “authenticity.” Daft Punk have made a big deal of using only live drums on the record, and complaining about the very EDM artists who cite them as influences, bitching about how “easy” it is to make music on laptops. The title of the first track of this record scans like a statement of intent: “Give Life Back to Music.”

It’s surprising to hear Daft Punk, of all artists, suggest that live instrumentation is what’s required to “give life back to music,” because undermines not only the early part of the band’s own career, but also the robotic personae Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have cultivated over the last decade or so. Interestingly, they’re not the only of their French electronic contemporaries to go down this route — Justice’s second album, 2011′s Audio, Video, Disco, was a similar ’70s rock pastiche, mining the cheesiest moments of the decade to create a sort of post-millennial mustache-funk record that happily sank without trace.

There’s probably an interesting cultural analysis to be written about French house’s grounding in the ’70s and the way in which the genre’s creative decline has coincided with a slide into simply recreating the sounds of that era. But it’s not just French artists; Cut Copy started off riding the wave of breezy house-influenced music in the mid-’00s, and, by their most recent album (2011′s Zonoscope), had been reduced to basically re-recording Paul McCartney’s “Jet” under a different title. If these artists aren’t happy with the state of present-day electronic music, that’s fine — it’s not like they’re alone in hating the likes of Skrillex — but it’s depressing that they’re dealing with their dissatisfaction by retreating into the past, rather than looking to the future.

Or perhaps they’ve just run out of steam. Clearly, no creative explosion lasts forever — as Sick Boy says in Trainspotting, “At one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever.” Still, it’s startling to hear Daft Punk turn in a record this underwhelming. It’s not so much that it’s bad — although it is — it’s that it’s so devoid of ideas and so grounded in musical conservatism. One thing’s for sure: they’re gonna need a bigger pyramid.