Dance music — particularly in all of its electronic strains — is supposed to be agreeable, driven by a deep beat to pump an offer through your blood that your heart and bones can’t refuse. The new Daft Punk record is proving divisive in this context, however, and while I’m not inclined to throw another opinionated rating (“mild 6!” No way, 8.9!”) into the mix, I am interested in exploring what it is about the release that we’re actually reacting to.
Parts of Random Access Memories dwell in esoteric themes that feel too indulgent for the dance floor, even “schmaltzy” as many reviewers have offered. Meanwhile, there are beautiful, sometimes epic movements and grooves across these songs and sonically the album is undeniably silky, as if each track was spun onto tape by a spider, not a robot.
Daft Punk are reaching into the 1970s to inform their prescient view of what’s next. The album curiously employs disco sensibility as a device to show progression, not to simply emulate and celebrate the past, but to recreate the vibe of then as a commentary on where we are now. Curiosity is not simple. It naturally evades abbreviation (á la EDM). An exploration of the past and pondering of the future should be complex, presenting a challenge that packs a reward. Whether or not you find that reward in RAM is a personal matter.
On the surface, Daft Punk’s latest take on dance does feel like it’s coming up short, lacking in brute force what it needs to be the soundtrack of 2013 ragers. It’s missing the adrenaline for the masses, as if shunning the fist pump that has made its way into all corners of our culture. Can a chilled-out sound still be dance, still be party music? The French duo may be offering advice: you need to groove a little more, to find power and ecstasy in the softness — and you need to find a way to do that while acknowledging the future ahead, where robots and all things digital will play an integral role in our lives.