The People Vs. Daft Punk
It seems like it's the right time to delve back into Daft Punk's largely lambasted third studio album: we are a few years removed from Random Access Memories and finally able to see the scope of its achievement from a solid vantage-point, the group fairly recently charted some singles as producers for The Weeknd (off the Starboy LP), and pop culture has become increasingly obsessed with the idea of trolling (internet or otherwise) in the particularly navel-gazing way that only capital-P-capital-C Pop Culture really can. To this last point, Human seemed in its day like an album either made by world-class trolls, or for them - hard to say which all these years later.
Was the album truly the failure, the heartbreak, the "artificial…all in-joke record" that reviewers said it was at the time? For a little scene-building, let's talk math: Metacritic (a popular online critical aggregator) currently has Human at a score of 57/100; compare that to Random Access Memories at 87 and Discovery (the band's previous high-water mark) at 74 (Homework is not present - what fresh hell, indeed) and we can say that the album was a critical lowpoint at the very least. Your mileage may vary on its success or failure as a listener, but we can agree that the numbers do in fact exist, and they present at least one version of a popular narrative where this album is concerned: act starts out hot (Homework), gets hotter (Discovery, Alive 97), crashes and burns (Human After All), then triumphantly rises like a phoenix from the flames and soars to previously-unthinkable heights (Random Access Memories).
Speaking of varying mileage and subjectivity, I am just gonna come clean with this right now: I personally enjoy this record very much. I always saw it as an antidote to the sometimes overly saccharine or polished work Daft Punk made their name on (even though I like all that, too). It feels strangely but solidly of a piece with the rest of their work, even while it takes a hard left into squelch, buzz, and noise that I find satisfying--nay, refreshing. If you don't agree, shuffle its songs into a playlist with songs from the other three albums - I dare you to not be a little relieved when its tracks come in with a straight-ahead, linear drive to cut through what are (occasionally) overly ambitious songs lacking any hemmed-in edges. It's all there in the influences: Homework blends driving 4/4 stomp with kitschy, layered samples and vocals to create the soundtrack to a night-of and morning-after that wears its rocknroll heart on it's leather sleeve even though it's by DJ's and for DJ's through and through; Discovery mines 70's soft-rock and creates a portal to the past, only to flip the script and blast off toward an Interstella 5555 future of space travel, blue skin, and good vibes; Human After All buzz-saws through all this with a nod to early 80's drum machines and synths, uncovering and somewhat messily laying bare the circuitry, giving you a guided tour through the psyche and the tell-tale heart of a robot; RAM is a burst of light, almost impossibly stuffed with brilliant ideas, A-List guest appearances, meditations on music, and organic craftsmanship - over time, it may be looked on as the moment when the Dafts outgrew their influences and created the music that they wish they could have grown up with, going so far as to build their own proprietary synthesizers in the process just to manifest the sounds they heard in their heads.
Human introduced us to "Robot Rock" - as a recovering DJ, I can attest that this track will fit into basically any upbeat set and rock damn near any dance floor. Is it as classic as "One More Time" or "Digital Love"? Probably not, but its grittier and its got hella street cred, so it holds its own and then some. "Technologic" - yeah, you forgot this all-time greatest hit was on this album didn't you? Its "buy-it-use-it-break-it-fix-it…" schtick proved to be a hit that succeeded in its own right, but it also provided sampling/thematic inspiration to artists and projects the world over (I see you, Busta). "Make Love" - while this wasn't a single, it bears mention here in order to point out that Human has great songs. "Make Love" evokes the softer and gentler cuts on Discovery, and it is therefore our proof that Daft Punk didn't abandon any part of their identity to make Human - they were just showing off a different skill-set.
But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.
Remember, Daft Punk had been famously under a public relations cloak for some time at this point, only giving interviews in masks and downplaying their identities in favor of a stylized robo-human aesthetic. So the cultural backlash against Human upon its release seems to stem at least in part from audiences and critics taking its title literally. This interpretation followed a logical through-line that concluded "human after all" meant that the layers would be peeled back and the humans at the core of this multimedia circus would reveal themselves instead of hiding (as much) behind the robot masks and circular dance routines. Listeners seemed to be let down that "human after all", as an artistic statement, was more of a parody in that the instrumentation was more robotic and machine-like than anything that had come before or has come since. The disappointment was that we weren't as in on the joke as we once were, and many accused them of taking the piss out of everyone on a record that simply didn't try to reach for the same euphoric highs they had hit on previous outings. To a certain kind of person, this feels like sarcasm, like they were trolled into a false sense of security but it was all a bait-and-switch: maybe Daft Punk had given up trying to be more than the sum of their parts and were content to collect a paycheck.
I sympathize with this point of view to a degree. And I'll even admit that I felt that way a little bit in the early days. As with any album by any of my favorite artists, I listened to it for a long time before landing on a solid opinion. In the conflicted throes of those early listens, I probably had a sense that this was not quite as challenging as I would have liked, for both artist and listener. What I'm saying is that people were not necessarily wrong on this as first impressions go.
But then RAM happened, and context peeked out from behind the curtain in a way that made it impossible to ignore.
There is a line of thinking that I've been cultivating for a while now, where a band's work is evaluated through the prism of what came AFTER, as opposed to only what came BEFORE. In this way, I appreciate Radiohead's Hail To The Thief in a new way because I know that In Rainbows came after it. The fact that In Rainbows was somehow gestating in the conscience of the band when they decided to put out Hail gives it (Hail) a whole new added dimension, an extra gravitas, if you will. And yes, there are numerous variables that aren't really covered in this critical methodology (changes to band talent, changes in audience demographics, etc), but there is some level of legitimacy in it if you allow it to present itself and are willing to work in some level of absolutes (e.g. the album as an art form, the motif of a band as an overarching aesthetic concept, etc).
So let's apply that thought exercise to Human After All. We now know that Random Access Memories was in the offing. And at present, we can safely assess RAM's importance in the sphere of mainstream pop and electronica. So knowing what direction DP could have gone in (ie, RAM), can we take Human further? Can we allow for the possibility that we just weren't going far enough down their rabbit hole?
Giving all the benefits of all the doubts for just a second: even if you abhor DP's "we are robots" gimmickry, you have to admit they are committed to it (and you also have to admit it's kinda fun, coming from a guy who fucking hates gimmicks as a rule). So think of it this way: what if "human after all" is not at all about really being "human"? What if the state of play is instead creating a piece of art that describes what machines and computers would think it was like to be human? My argument is that Human After All is a concept album about machines making music that they think humans would make. Still with me? We're deep down the rabbit hole now, curiouser and curiouser.
Now...try that idea on for size and re-listen. "The Brainwasher" is absolutely a song that an artificially intelligent creature would think was a hard-rock style banger, like "Iron Man" in binary code; the creepypasta of "Steam Machine" is the whispering David Lynch-ian nightmare-scape that a robot would create to scare its brethren; "Television Rules The Nation" is not some cocky, swaggering, aggro bullshit - it's an anthemic statement of fact (from a machine's point of view, and increasingly from ours); "On/Off" is a flashback interlude to the first moments of consciousness, the equivalent of a baby-talk interlude on a hip-hop record; and, one of my favorite underrated gems, "The Prime Time Of Your Life" is a feel-good, windows-down, pop smash made for summers at the beach…it's just that it's written by a sentient laptop computer (or something).
This is why, as the years have gone on, I only appreciate Human more as an album. It turns out that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Cristo actually DID pull back the layers. They made a concept album that was in many ways more adroit than Discovery's deep space soft-rock sheen. The DJ's who spun up a storm and called it Homework limited their palette and created a darker world, one dreamt up by the machines they themselves pretended to be. While it would be irresponsible of me to argue for Human as the best DP studio album, many people dismiss it as an outright misfire and I can't do that either. To me, Human After All represents a necessary progression in the Daft Punk canon - in order to truly find their humanity and make it mean something, they first had to tear open the casing of their robot hearts to see what made them tick.
**Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on ControlForever.com in 2017. It has since been taken down and we decided to give it a new life here on Re-Critic. Only slight modifications have been made to decrease the author's level of chagrin. Snoogins.**