Dance music has always been about liberation, from juke-joint boogie woogies to discotheque dramas, the rec-room breaks that begat hip-hop and the heady house music that brought together poseurs and punters alike.
That may seem like an oversimplification (which is sort of necessary when considering a genre as fractious as dance), but it doesn't have to be: Sure, sharecroppers found release in ragtime and black and Latino youth — both gay and straight — drew empowerment from disco, but there's a reason Primal Scream tacked Peter Fonda's "We wanna be free to do what we wanna do!" speech to the beginning of "Loaded" ... liberation, it seems, comes in many forms.
To further that analogy, consider today's EDM, which seems to exist largely for kids to liberate themselves from their clothing. And because of that, the genre finds itself at a bit of a crossroads: Sure, it's never been bigger, but it's hard to argue that it's ever been more lunkheaded ... say what you will about the Chemical Brothers' run in the late '90s, but at least they were smart enough to make a song like "The Private Psychedelic Reel."
Given that, it's difficult to see where Daft Punk fit in. For an act so revered, their influence on today's mega DJs seems fleeting at best — save their now legendary live shows, which set the gold-standard against which all shall be judged. It's been eight years since their last true album, Human After All, and in that time, dance music has mutated into something neither of them could have imagined. The cheekiness of "Around The World" or "One More Time" has been abandoned in favor of walloping tracks that seem better suited to sports-drink spots or Nicki Minaj singles. Things are certainly Harder, Faster and Stronger, but they are not necessarily Better.
Which is why their new Random Access Memories album makes so much sense: Rather than attempt to dig through the present, they're rediscovering the past. It is not a reinvention so much as it is a revolution; their attempt to liberate themselves from dance music entirely.
Within reason, of course. Because, as you can gather from first single "Get Lucky," there's still plenty to boogie to on Memories (the album version of the track, in particular, stretches out into an opulent disco jam). The other Pharrell feature, "Lose Yourself To Dance" is flash-fried funk that's still gooey in the middle, building on guitars and handclaps before gradually fading away on the duo's lithe robo-vocals. "Doin' It Right," which features Animal Collective member Panda Bear, works itself into a syncopated shuffle based on little more than the interplay between voices and some electronic drums. And the album's most epic track, "Giorgio by Moroder," begins with an extended monologue by Moroder himself, pauses momentarily with a goosebump-raising drop — "My name is Giovanni Giorgio ... but everybody calls me Giorgio" — then blasts off with fuzzed-out guitar, strings, bubbly bass and even some laser bursts for good measure. You will dance until you drop.
So, having said all that, why do I consider this album to be such a dramatic statement? It's the little things, the attention to detail — the sumptuous production flourishes, the unmistakable live feel of the record, the fact they cared enough to get the dude who played guitar on Thriller to jam on the record — the homages to pioneers like Moroder (large spaces of Memories recall some of his best work, particularly the "Midnight Express" soundtrack) and Nile Rodgers, and the sheer ambition and scope of the project. But mostly because, despite its many dance-inducing moments, this is not purely a dance record.
Instead, Random Access Memories is a good old fashioned odyssey: Songs like the lengthy, multi-suite "Touch" (featuring Paul Williams of "Rainbow Connection" fame), the morose "Within" the wide-screen sized "Beyond" and the lush, liquescent "Motherboard" require repeated listens, preferably in a darkened room with the inebriant of your choice. It is decidedly moodier than anything Daft Punk have done before, not to mention more atmospheric and emotive ... if anything, the robots have never seemed more human. Which may be tough for folks expecting the spiritual sequel to Homework; if anything, this seems like the logical successor to Human After All.
In a lot of ways, Random Access Memories seems like the only possible response to dance music in 2013, a lumbering beast Daft Punk are at least somewhat responsible for creating. They had to go backwards — to the regal, joyous expanses of the disco era — in order to move forward, and in doing so, they've created something entirely new: the first opulent, over-the-top, one-hundred-percent organic epic of the decade. It's also the least Daft Punk album of their careers, which is definitely the point. Like I said, liberation comes in many forms. Will the kids like it? Probably not ... but hey, the shirtless masses can at least take solace in this fact: Apparently, Ultra was sick this year.