Daft Punk, Discovery (Virgin)
You know those records where one track is so amazing that it’s hard to pay attention to the worth of the rest of the album? In the case of Daft Punk’s newest record, Discovery, that track is the fourth, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” The track is led by a robotic computer voice played by a synthesizer so the words are spoken on different notes. In the first half of the song, the voice is introduced bit by bit along a melody. For the second half of the song, Daft Punk improvise on the synthesizer making the robotic voice scat along their keyboard flourishes. Like a friendlier version of Radiohead’s “Fitter. Happier.” automaton, Daft’s robot enjoins us to “Work it Harder, Make it Better, Do it Faster” to a powerful groove. The sound is an identifiable update of the minimalist beat-bass-robot voice of “Around the World” from the duo’s first album, Homework.
Elsewhere the new sound is not as directly related to the sound Daft Punk crafted on their debut. The first single “One More Time” opens the album and though it features the powerful single note drum beat they have used to great extent in the past, the song fails to capture the idiosyncratic fun of Homework. A singer appears on “One More Time” and several other of Discovery‘s tracks making the songs sound too similar to other dance producers’ work.
Indeed, Daft Punk seem content on Discovery to troll through the dance music canon of clichés and fads. In addition to “One More Time,” many other songs employ a singer to repeat a phrase over and over. This conceit was boring before anyone even did it. Hearing some jerk sing, “It’s been much too long / I feel it coming on / the feeling’s in my bones” in “Too Long” is enough to make one check the record sleeve to make sure he didn’t accidentally pick up a Backstreet Boys album. “Face to Face” makes the same mistake. What begins with simple vocal snippets soon transforms into a new beast — a house music beast. An embarrassing voice joins the song to ruin it. “Digital Love,” whose shameless 80s sounds might seem to escape the house music clichés, walks a thin line between camp and embarrassment. Only “Superheroes” seems to employ a human voice in a non-dignity-threatening way.
Disco seems to have been a powerful influence on this record (a fad perhaps started by England’s Space Raiders). Discovery is altogether funkier than their first — like if Prince were a robot. “Voyager” shows this style off to great effect with a fluid bassline and rhythmic guitar accompaniment. “Short Circuit” takes more than its name from 80s nostalgia. Like “Teachers” from Homework, the song pays homage to those who inspired Daft Punk. Though instead of having a heavily-effected voice name the influences, “Short Circuit” uses the sounds of early synthesizers and drum machines to recreate a time in dance music in the late 1970s and early 1980s when disco and hip-hop were colliding. As if to confirm that the track is a glimpse at their myriad influences, the song departs at the end for a section straight out of Kraftwerk’s playbook.
This is not to say that Discovery is not a fine album. It will possibly turn out to be one of the best dance records of the year. It is by far more enjoyable and (God help me) dance-able than Basement Jaxx’s loudly lauded Remedy of 1999 and it is far more coherent and solid than Fatboy Slim’s recent abortion, Between the Gutter and the Stars.
Without a doubt, Daft Punk (along with the Big Beat explosion out of Southern England) changed the face of dance music in the late 1990’s. The French duo set the bar pretty high with their debut not only for others, but also for themselves to follow. Instead of releasing a copycat of their first album, Daft Punk has explored new territory on their second record. Though that territory has been well-trod by the rest of the dance world, Daft Punk had previously not injected their own style into it. For that reason, Discovery is a superior dance record, though not the unique collection of fun that Homework was (and still is).
But as Daft’s robot reminds us, “More than ever, hour after hour, work is never over.” A group that can craft a gem like “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” is surely not going to be content to wallow in faddish house music sounds for long.