14.05.13

10 thoughts on listening to ‘Random Access Memories’ in The Shard

In the last 24 hours I’ve heard the new Daft Punk album described as everything from the record that will re-define dance music in 2013 to “country lounge disco”. Via teaser trailers, early reviews and the single Get Lucky it’s been presented over the past few weeks in infuriating dribs and drabs, but today you can finally feast on it whole by streaming it for yourself on iTunes. Hearing it last night in The Shard in London, though, I felt its impact powerfully; in 10 brief points, these were my first impressions and musings as I listened.

  1. Wow. Everything about this listening was large-scale, and the response that was both expected and elicited from me was a dropping jaw and a waving camera. With funky electro thudding out of speakers much too big to be sensible and an entire city sprawled out around me, I felt very small – and it’s fair to say that ‘Random Access Memories’ contributed a fair amount to that sense of awe, with its expansive and ambitious toolkit of sounds. The album’s strident opening demands that you sit down, stand up or just do the opposite of whatever you were doing before and pay attention – if one thing’s for sure, it’s that this is an album designed to be heard loudly and superlatively.
  2. Giorgio by Moroder. “My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everybody calls me Giorgio”. This is an impeccable, zany rollercoaster of a track. I can’t wait to hear it dominating a dancefloor.
  3. Vocoder sadness. Robotic voices and human emotions can be a poignant combination – Kanye West alone did enough to prove that on ’808s and Heartbreak’ – but on this elsewhere explosive album, tracks like The Game of Love and Within fall hopelessly flat; Within particularly so after the triumphant high of Giorgio by Moroder. As I listened last night to a voice crooning “I just wanted you to stay” over and over again above the staccato strums and sparse percussion of The Game of Love, I couldn’t have felt more detached from the emotional core of the lyrics. Even the words themselves seem too metallically perfect, chosen for their metre and the way they slot into the track.
  4. Pharrell. Pharrell. Pharrell. The R&B legend’s presence on this record is more than welcome; his laid-back (and yet always inciting you to move) voice suits the funky pluck of Daft Punk’s current sound (and, of course, Nile Rodgers’s influence) to a tee, and draws a wry smile out of each track he appears on. Get Lucky is, of course, a brilliant and easy summer jam, while Lose Yourself to Dance manages to make the line “go ahead take my shirt and wipe up all the – sweat, sweat, SWEAT one that you actually want to sing along to.
  5. Machinery. Robot faces stared down at me within my giant metal-and-glass cage, tiny trains crawled around beneath my feet and a rope swung breezily from the side of the building (actually, was that meant to be there? Perhaps The Shard was broken…) – it was an evening of being overwhelmed by machinery. That totally works for Daft Punk; ‘Random Access Memories’ is somewhat lacking in passion for anything external, but it’s obsessively internal in that it has a lot of lust for its instruments. From flighty flutes to elaborate synth-work, string orchestras and a host of both altered and un-altered voices, it’s a celebration of form and sound, a meticulously crafted engine.
  6. Messing with the listener. The most bizarre element of this album, I thought on my first listen, is its constant taunting of the listener. Much like the marketing campaign that brought all these people to this ridiculous building, and much like a feverish DJ set playing against an enthusiastic crowd, it drops hints and tasters consistently throughout its running time, urging you to keep listening and suggesting that it’s going to give you one thing before giving you another. The primary way it engages with its listener is in this cat-and-mouse sense of tension and release, or ecstasy and frustration.
  7. Marketing. In a similar vein, what you really can’t escape about being in the Shard to listen to a Daft Punk album is that this record has arguably had one of the best marketing campaigns that any album’s had in years. Relentlessly inventive and tantalising, it’s difficult to separate the spectacular campaign from the album itself – particularly in this moment, standing over London – and imagine how we might have taken this album if it hadn’t come surrounded with the same furore and promise.
  8. Touch. Singer-songwriter Paul Williams’s contribution to the album is a softer moment in its running time, but unlike the earlier slow tracks, this one succeeds in bringing a human moment of emotional charge into the midst of Daft Punk’s sonic chaos. Moving through field recordings, robotic groans, quivering strings and a host of sounds almost too far-reaching to even acknowledge before they blend into something else, the track is an odyssey in itself, but its crux comes with Williams’s elated exclamations “Kiss! suddenly alive /…Touch, where do you lead? / I need something more” and his later, timid reprisal of the same chorus in a more broken voice.
  9. Bass. When the Panda Bear-featuring track Doin’ It Right kicked in, the floor of the room at the View From the Shard shook. It didn’t feel safe, being as high up as we were; but nevertheless it felt great. I’d recommend turning your speakers up loud for this one.
  10. Contact, feat. DJ Falcon. Contact is a crazy, epic high of an album ending – and it’s incredibly apt for a very all-or-nothing collection of tracks. I’ve been at various points bored and thrilled by this album, with scarcely a moment in between; just as I’ve been listening to it either at ground level or 69 floors up. This album is a statement of intent and a technical tour-de-force from two masters of dance, making opulent music for opulent music’s sake. I’ve definitely enjoyed it a lot; but staring down at London from such a great height makes you feel quite queasy, after a while.