Human After All
hen we last left Our Heroes, a.k.a. Daft Punk, they had just released 2001’s landmark Discovery, announcing that they had been summarily killed and replaced by robots – a publicity stunt that smacked of Krafwerk’s pioneering Man Machine. The euro-tronic retro-chic was hardly a surprise, since what the duo’s debut, 1996’s Homework, lacked in substance, it almost made up for in sheer reference points; from 1976-era satin jacket artwork and iconic sleeve memorabilia to the “Another One Bites the Dust” stomp of “Da Funk”’s bass and drums and “Teachers”’ inventory of rock and DJ gods, the band was steeped in pop mythology. But therein lied a crucial difference; where their German forebears believed in technology’s capacity to refine pop with the efficiency of automobile—to distill it to its purest form, eliciting our most human qualities—Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter harbored deeper suspicions about pop’s origins and machinations. Bangalter’s father had been a music biz veteran of the 70’s disco scene, and for Daft Punk, the marketing gimmick was as violently suggestive as it was playfully reverent.
Of course, you’d have never known it from the smashing success that was Discovery—still for many the best electronic pop album of the decade, an effervescent record chock full of vocoders, Frampton-esque talk box guitars, and peerless pop songwriting that emerged as if from the ether. But if Discovery was just that—the document of two men (or robots) unearthing pop music’s possibilities—then Human After All is the polar opposite: a group discovering pop’s limitations, resulting in what for many is already being touted as the disappointment of the year.
Indeed, the letdown has been palpable, with many struggling to comprehend how the same band that had scaled the heights of masturbation ode “Digital Love” and the Jason Forrest-shaming Todd Edwards collaboration “Face To Face” only four years earlier could produce a record so patently tossed-off, lazily mixed, and lacking in dynamics. So disillusioned were most fans in the run-up to Human After All’s release, there was considerable hubbub as to whether the version leaked on the Internet was a fraud—that it wasn’t was as much a testament to the group’s reputation for cunning as it was the apparently shabby quality of the music.
It’s a hard point to argue at first; after the opening title track’s generally skilled crescendo of vocoders and rock guitars, the listener is left with little to pick over, with most tracks consisting of little more than rehashes, empty slogans accompanied by aimless riffs that sink in the face of repeated listens. “Prime Time of Your Life” is less a song than framework on which to load more vocoders and trend-jumping schaffel beats. “Technologic” recycles the litany of consumer catchphrases featured in Discovery’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” without any hint of its predecessor’s excitement. Constituting the record’s only dance tunes proper, “The Brainwasher” and industrial “Steam Machine” come and go without a trace, with “Emotion” and the gentle “Make Love” recalling Krautrock maestro’s Cluster at their most pastoral providing modest oases from what is otherwise blunt, brutal, uninviting music.
So, it’s a career-killing blunder then? Not quite. We won’t likely be hearing “Steam Machine” in clubs anytime soon, but as we might expect from Our Heroes, there’s a quite bit more going on than meets the eye. Indeed, what we have here appears to be a rather wicked burlesque of pop’s current goings-on—a good old-fashioned “piss take” that also happens to be just this side of genius. Piecing together the puzzle begins, ironically, with closing track, “Emotion,” a cut so baldly one-note that only Daft Punk could have pulled it off. Static to the point of lifeless, the song features a building chordal riff, with the inevitable beat entering two-and-a-half minutes in. Hovering above it all is a machine repeating the word “emotion” over and over, never even bothering to convey it. A brilliant conceit; forgoing Devo-style inertia, Daft Punk portray something altogether more damning—a complete absence of emotional capacity. Conor Oberst, take note.
Lead single “Robot Rock” answers the same question a different way. It’s to Bangalter and Homem-Christo’s credit that they’ve always understood that authenticity has no place in any form of popular music—and here they shatter notions of rockism by revealing the rock idiom for what it’s become: formulaic pop music. For a group predicated on the idea that pop has died (or been killed), “Robot Rock” is the aural manifestation of that idea, a plastic guitar riff that does nothing, means nothing and goes nowhere for an unconscionably long time. Along the same lines, “On Off,” nineteen seconds of channel-surfing, is followed by the empty sloganeering of “Television Rules the Nation,” whose guitar riff is every bit as ham-fisted as its message. It’s the same story, track after track, willfully mistaking alternation for variation, intensification for development and dynamics. In other words, a shining example of pop songcraft in the 21st Century.
Portraying the state of pop as a series of predictable formulae long since exhausted by corporate superstructure, Human After All more than lives up to its name, rendering a metaphor for failure on the grandest yet simultaneously most personal of terms. And certainly, as the title track’s passionate desire to break through reminds us that quest for purity and transcendence endures even in the most hardened of hearts—even in cynical manipulators such as Our Heroes. But perhaps Kraftwerk were right. Maybe technology does elicit our most human qualities—just not the qualities they were thinking of. Daft Punk, indeed.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2005-03-14