Earlier this week, an employee of U Street Music Hall strolled down 14th Street NW and ducked into Som Records to buy a vinyl copy of the most hyped album of the year, Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”
Five hours later on Tuesday night, she’d hand the LP over to a DJ who would spin it over the club’s commodious sound system for fans who had been waiting in a line that squiggled down the block and around the corner. Throughout the night, more than 800 people would spill down the nightclub’s stairs, gathering on a subterranean dance floor to listen to an album they’d already heard on their computers.
Everybody wants to dance with the men in the masks. We know that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are two Parisians just shy of 40, but the founders of Daft Punk have hidden their faces for years, sporting helmets and gloves that make them look like bespoke androids.
Over time, pseudonymity has transformed the duo into an entity without genre, race, age or nationality, allowing them to produce pop music in the purest sense. And with the release of “Random Access Memories,” they seem more than popular. They’re immortal man-machines sent from the future to teach our planet how to relive its maligned disco yesteryears.
Daft Punk’s widespread appeal started a dozen summers back with 2001’s “Discovery,” a collection of supreme dance tracks that still feel joyful and fresh. Since then, there’s been a mish-mashy follow-up album, an intriguing movie soundtrack, lots of taste-steering praise from the likes of Kanye West, and a 2006 Coachella performance that’s been mythologized into the Big Bang that triggered America’s current fascination with electronic dance music.
Expectations for “Random Access Memories” have been immense, and rightfully so. When you’ve crafted something as effortlessly innovative as “Discovery,” pushing boundaries isn’t a liberty so much as a responsibility.
Daft Punk stoked those big expectations earlier this year, launching a massive publicity campaign that echoed its latest aesthetic twist. TV ads sprouted up during “Saturday Night Live.” Old-school billboards floated over Sunset Strip. It resembled a big-money promo push from the ’70s, a decade of music-biz grandeur that the duo hoped its new music might evoke.
The album’s first single, “Get Lucky,” was a sip of neo-disco that ended the song-of-the-summer search before it even started, promising thrills the way blockbuster movie trailers do. This album would have gobs of live instrumentation, lots of big-name guests, plenty of big-tent melodies, the works — and in an era when such a tiny sliver of artists can afford the works.
When the whole thing finally leaked last week, the instantaneous swells of praise from critics didn’t read like enthusiasm so much as a refusal to be disappointed.
The Internet is often touted as a borderless, uber-democratic Shangri-La, but it’s also a place that quietly and routinely herds us into consensus — especially when it comes to pop music, which has descended into chaos when compared with the golden ’70s Daft Punk is aiming to resurrect. Our media literacy is slowly growing, but we still find great security in agreement. That makes “Random Access Memories” the shiniest new emblem of social-media-age conformity.
The boring truth is that “Random Access Memories” isn’t any better than just okay. It’s an exquisitely produced, somewhat sexless concept album about life, love and music — both natural and artificial — where too many of the duo’s collaborators foul up the flow by failing to serve the songs.
Chic’s Nile Rodgers, perhaps the most underrated guitarist alive, plays his Stratocaster like he’s inventing funk all over again. It’s fantastic stuff. Julian Casablancas of the Strokes acquiesces to the proceedings, too, Auto-Tuning his voice into aural wallpaper. It works. Pharrell Williams, a singer and producer whose falsetto coated hip-hop radio in the aughties, dominates the tracks he appears on. Spotty. Giorgio Moroder, the great disco godfather, narrates his abridged musical biography over a pulsing soundscape. It’s a head-scratcher.
The guests clear out for “The Game of Love” and “Within,” two absorbing robo-ballads that map out the shrinking gap between humanity and technology. “I am lost,” a mandroid voice croons on the latter. “I can’t even remember my name.” It’s difficult not to feel a mysterious intimacy toward these existential machines, the same sort of intimacy we feel toward our iPhones, which is totally unhealthy and very real.
After 74 minutes, “Random Access Memories” feels like a collection of good intentions made sloppy by — gasp? — human error.
Here’s a real gasp: This music has a much different effect when experienced in three dimensions. On the dance floor of U Street Music Hall on Tuesday night, the album was played twice, sparking sweaty communion. No hype machinery could have made the crowd move like that. It was booty over brain.
And while there’s something ancient and undeniable about a large group of humans instinctually committing to rhythm through motion, it was still sobering to cheer yesterday’s innovators as they settled into the role of tomorrow’s comforters.
It was tragic the more you thought about it. And it was fun the more you danced those thoughts away. Instead of the start of something, it felt like the end. It was the night the world caught up with Daft Punk.
Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Thomas Bangalter’s name. This version has been corrected.