Thursday, May 29, 2014

Daft Punk: Discovery (2000)



Daft Punk's 1997 debut Homework exhausted many listeners, including this one, but its impact -- especially given its relatively late entry into the dance music platform that had been in place by then for over two decades -- was beyond measure. It also exhausted house music, at least from the perspective of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo -- they did everything they could think of. Discovery entered the world eagerly at a time of considerable before-the-storm hedonism, a shot of unapologetic joy that's pointedly unopposed to being stupid. It doesn't feature songs any more than its predecessor so much as just bare, unadorned hooks distilled to their illogically orgasmic essence. It's all cream filling, and thus just as grating as the prior record, just as artistically intriguing, and depending on the moment, just as inspiring of bump-and-grind dancefloor pyrotechnics.

The first two Daft Punk records were both received lukewarmly upon release, but they each gradually grew into significant albums, slowly finding their audiences until they had a decade's worth of moments. That's despite each of them having sizable hits, in this case "One More Time," a curious single indeed. The track marks an immediate reversal from the stark relentlessness of Homework; not merely less beat driven but spending much of its time in a pregnant pause absent of percussion, it consists of what sounds like a distantly sampled introductory splash from a long-forgotten disco record, followed by just a fragment of its chorus. It's the essence of something, deliberately robbed of whatever meaning it may have had, as alien in its fashion as an early Beatles record just making its way Stateside -- but rather than presenting an unsettling, unexpected, unforced pleasure, its sensations seem implanted, almost grotesquely. In an era when pop music was so frequently accused of being overly engineered, Daft Punk went further; "One More Time" is notebook pop, a radio single concocted by HAL 9000.

Its relentless cheeriness does betray a surprisingly broken-feeling nostalgia, something that folks stuck working in the lobby at AMC where it played on a loop for a whole summer or trying to concentrate on their game of checkers at the Tipsy Teapot likely ignored or couldn't even sense. But it nags at you; the autotuned robovoice is as capable as HAL of saying things it doesn't mean: "music's got me feelin' so free," indeed. By and large, Daft Punk's longing to capture a midnight-summertime flood of unjudged bliss translates to something that, considering it's mostly nonverbal, is surprisingly on-the-nose. The entire first half of Discovery is, in a word, annoying.

It's not that the record lacks ideas or is overly bare at any point, an accusation that the simpler, more evenly breathing Random Access Memories would one day face. Like Homework, it comes flooding out with evidence of the personality and fixations of the band, from the "Mother" intro and fussy classical hook of "Aerodynamic" to the obvious Stevie Wonder lift on "Night Vision." Like a lot of cut-and-paste musicians and producers, Daft Punk see the virtue in everything they process and seem to be influenced by everything in all corners of pop culture, which can make them seem alternately offbeat or individualistic and, far more often, an unfiltered mess of junk. There's no mistaking that Discovery is a wavering record, less confident than Homework, which leads in part to its kitchen sink tragedy -- but it loves its kitsch, and as much as it glares backward toward disco liberation, the experience of listening to it resembles some perverse marriage of "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" to the 1910 Fruitgum Co. more than the actual music of Chic, Gloria Gaynor or K.C. & the Sunshine Band (much less their descendants).

These canned Casio hooks, sporadic beats, fun times at grownup Chuck E. Cheese and extended commercials for the ABC Saturday Night Movie have their contrived charm; "Digital Love" is exactly the song its title suggests, and "Harder Better Faster Stronger" is a tricky enough act of goose-stepping manipulation, locating soul in its eerie fascism, that it's little wonder it was destined to become more famous than itself. (Given how much Daft Punk are attached to friendly flourish, it's even more ironic to hear this side by side with Kanye West's masterpiece Yeezus, on which they aided West in upgrading blues braggadio to late last night with uncomfortable, unadorned charisma and menace against blown-out void.) At worst, though, this is either irritating exercise music ("Superheroes") that yearns to be turned off or Sega Genesis scoring ("Crescendolls") than yearns to be turned off or repurposed as the cheap soundtrack to your camcorder-shot vacation tape.

Like so many dance or electronica records, Discovery comes around at last past generic tangents like "High Life" and prog silliness like "Veridis Quo" when it drops the winking self-awareness, the AREN'T WE HAVING A GREAT TIME EVERYBODY??? vibe of fun crammed down one's throat. A record this haphazardly sequenced makes little to no effort to set a mood; it crashes down on the table in the middle of the party then gradually burns out. What's odd is, that's the good part. The turning point is the slow groove "Something About Us," a genuinely crafty ballad in the vein of Sade. This is followed by actual R&B on the tremendous "Face to Face," without question the group's best song up to this point. They're aided here by house producer and vocalist Todd Edwards whose tasteful but exuberant efforts take the cut past its lopped-off "Billie Jean" intro into an emotional realm heretofore unexplored by Daft Punk's often hollow-by-instinct club music.

That's just one facet of the record's refreshingly melancholy back half. "Face to Face" would become a major hit in U.S. clubs, and it's one of three cuts here that suggest how much potential Daft Punk really had. While the doo wop flameout "Too Long" actually justfies (title notwithstanding) its sprawling ten-minute length with a hard beat and arm-waving climax, "Short Circuit" toys much more conservatively with a simple Bernie Worrell / Tom Tom Club meltdown that transforms rapidly from vice to drone in an organic yet completely unexpected manner -- it feels like a piece of music that resolves the conflicts of Daft Punk's divergent pop sensibilitues: their obligation to innovate versus their obligation toward dancing versus their love of great, listenable pop recordings. All Daft Punk's records toy with the weirdness and unceasing revision of identity -- at its best, Discovery is about realizing just how limitless the concept can be.

Homework (1997)
Random Access Memories (2013)

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