Big profiles of the French duo were appearing this week in Pitchfork and the New York Times. A Jumbotron promo video for Random Access Memories was shown at Coachella and a commercial for the album aired during Saturday Night Live. All that would seem to indicate the free iTunes download was not the band's response to a leak, but was, like everything else about Random Access Memories, part of a carefully engineered effort, tuned to perfection. Perhaps the "leaked" rumor itself was also planned? I wouldn't be surprised. Certainly others have used the streaming preview option, including David Bowie, who recently handled the release of his wildly successful The Next Day in very similar way: a video, a single, some carefully placed promotional ads, a free streaming version on iTunes -- just enough activity to spark a Twitter frenzy. Worked like a charm for Bowie, who sold more copies of The Next Day in its first week than any album he had released in more than 20 years.
With the latest album, the duo is reaching back to the disco era of the late '70s, using live musicians in an effort to reconnect to what Pharrell Williams described in an interview with The Creators Project as "a magical time" when involvement in the music felt like a kind of physical saturation, of being transported. "When I heard 'Get Lucky' . . . it just felt like a place where it was forever 4 in the morning," he said. " . . . you could sort of see the sun rising in the sky. . . ." The music on the album is indeed a beautiful, up-all-night urban sunrise. While still a masterly use of electronics, the added human pulse of the live musicians, Rodgers especially, makes each song a flesh-and-blood hug.
Quoted by the New York Times, Bangalter said the live players offer "an infinity of nuance, in the shuffles and the grooves. These things are impossible to create with machines."
In addition to Williams and Rodgers, other guest spots include a monologue by Italian electronica legend Giorgio Moroder, singer Julian Casablancas of The Strokes and '70s pop singer and actor Paul Williams, who turns in a surprisingly powerful performance on the 8-minute suite and centerpiece of the album, Touch. The lyrics throughout R.A.M. are not memorable, resembling poetry in the way that frozen grape juice resembles a fine merlot. But that also seems calculated, as the same could have been said about the disco songs that inspired this album: Donna Summer's I Feel Love (a collaboration with Moroder) and Michael Jackson's Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, for instance. From Touch:
Touch, I remember touchCheesy? Sure. Even more because it's Paul Williams' voice, ripe with an overreaching sincerity. But like the robot masks, that cheese only seems to serve the larger purpose of a good time -- no demands, no heavy lifting for the mind, just an anonymously drawn, gorgeous, hotel bubble bath, a physical epiphany that ripples over the skin. To that end, any hint of the gymnastic disco romps of that period, songs like Summer's 1979 No. 1, Hot Stuff, or the Village People's 1978 YMCA, are excluded from the robots' input data on Random Access Memories. This album's songs are not about social empowerment, but longing and beautiful regret.
Pictures came with touch
a painter in my mind
tell me what you see
a tourist in a dream
a visitor it seems
a half-forgotten song
where do I belong?