Monday, September 10, 2012

Around the World

Daft Punk's Homework is fifteen years old this year. Does that seem odd to you? It seems a lifetime ago, especially considering the duo's subsequent career. Daft Punk don't repeat themselves. They've never recorded another album quite like Homework, and perhaps not coincidentally, they've never released anything even close to as good.

That doesn't mean Discovery is a bad album - or even Human After All (which I once discussed here) - not by any means. But it does mean that for myself, and for a few other Daft Punk fans of my acquaintance, the first few encounters with Discovery were - not to put too fine a point on it - crushing disappointments. What the hell was this 70s EZ listening shit? Where were the bangers? Homework is pure fire from beginning to end. It's perhaps the best dance LP ever recorded: although it was a massive crossover success, it wasn't really a "crossover" in the same way that we usually imagine the term. There were no stunt vocalists, no ballads on back half of the album, no Beatles homages, no guest rappers, no concessions to "relevance," whatever that would have meant in the context of 1997. There aren't even any obvious singles. Sure, we all know "Around the World," but an actual disco house track on the radio in 1997? Without a vocal hook other than the same three vocodered words looped over and over again? Say what?

When I say "best dance LP," I mean just that. There's not an inch of fat anywhere on this thing even though it runs close to the full 80 minutes allowed on a compact disc. The Chemical Brothers knew how to write pop songs and had the best beats; Underworld had the truly cosmic breadth and depth; the Prodigy never shook their roots as the world's biggest rave act, with all the good and bad that this entailed. But Daft Punk? They made an album of dance tracks that were actually dance tracks - and if you think that's damning with faint praise, or underselling their competitors, think again. There was quite a bit of really good electronic music recorded in the late 90s, but Homework stands out - not necessarily better than Dig Your Own Hole or Second Toughest in the Infants or In Sides, but definitely the hardest dance album to ever go gold in the United States. Perhaps that's where they got some of their early reputation for being, well, kind of dumb. Go back to 1997 and reread some of the reviews for Homework and you'll see an album that was gravely misunderstood by a large part of its audience. I can't help but think that part of the reason for this was that Homework didn't make any concessions to be loved by the rock-oriented critical establishment, who were only slowly warming to dance musicians, and who did so in direct proportion to those dance artists' willingness to pander to the hoariest AOR prejudices of said critics.

(Although I realize that sounded vaguely snide, this isn't meant as a swipe against any of the artists who made the switch to the more "traditional" LP-centered career model - just that dance music that sought to succeed as dance music without conceding some degree of structural integrity to generic syncretism still faced an uphill battle in the face of those music critics who might still have been nursing irrational grudges from the heyday of disco. Hopefully they're all dead now.)

Which is precisely why Discovery could only ever have been a grave disappointment. Sure, in time I grew to like the album. I came to appreciate it for what it was. It's obviously foolish to pine over something that Daft Punk never had any intention of doing - that is, record a proper follow-up to Homework. They didn't want to repeat themselves. They did their hardcore dance album, it was time to move on to something new - and from the way Discovery took off and eventually eclipsed Homework in the critical imagination, it's fairly clear that they were onto something. Discovery is itself now eleven years old, and now that we can look back with over a decade's hindsight it's not hard to discern that Discovery was an amazingly influential - and downright prescient - album. I know people who love Discovery who would never have cared for Homework, who actively dislike the type of house music Daft Punk made their bones by playing. But for me? For the people I know who loved Homework? For my ex-wife the DJ? Discovery was seriously weak sauce.

But of course it wasn't supposed to be anything other than it was. If they had remained committed to making more music in the vein of Homework, chances are good that they never would have enjoyed the same kind of success. Ultimately, being mad at Daft Punk for going pop with Discovery is very much akin to being pissy at Dylan for going electric - there would always be a small coterie of beard-strokers (or, more to the point, underground house DJs) who wanted to hear "Alive" and "Da Funk" over and over again, but at some point you've got to get out the Rolodex and call Romanthony. This is all relative, after all - Discovery is still very much a dance album, after all. It was just as plugged into the currents of electronic music history as Homework, but more or less 180° turn away from the dank nightclub atmosphere of their debut album.

Discovery is bright neon lights and spaceships streaking through the sky, Homework is flickering lightbulbs in basement dance clubs with sticky floors. Discovery is slathered in French pop, classic disco, vintage vocal house - really, "Face to Face" and "Too Long" are just one Jamie Principle vocal away from being Trax 12"s. Getting mad at Daft Punk because they strayed from one model of mid-to-late 90s French house / NY garage is really rich, considering how deeply their sophomore album is soaked in the sound of mid-to-late 70s proto- and early disco. It isn't entirely a house album partly because the music that primarily inspired the album wasn't house music - it was house music's parents, the kind of stuff you might have expected Larry Levan to be spinning way back in 1977 when the Paradise Garage was just getting started. (And, uh, Supertramp.)

But with all that said - I can like Discovery just fine without thinking that it's a better album than Homework, even if Discovery is by far the more beloved and successful of the two records. (For as close to objective proof as is possible to find of this assertion, let's look at what is probably the nearest we'll find to middle-of-the-road pop music criticism CW, that is, Pitchfork. In Pitchfork's staff list of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s, Homework comes in at a measly #65, right in front of Maxinquaye, and behind the Breeder's Last Splash (!!!). In that site's list of the Top 200 Albums of the 2000s, Discovery came in at #3, behind only Arcade Fire's Funeral and Kid A. Perhaps more pressingly, Pitchfork's recent "People's List" poll of the best records of the last fifteen years - as voted by 27,981 readers - placed Discovery at #26, and Homework at &72 - right behind James Blake's self-titled debut.) I suspect one of the reasons why people like Discovery so much is that it's a much better attempt at making a conscious "album" than Homework. It has themes and motifs and singers and guitars and even a little bit of a concept thing going on, especially if you also keep Leiji Matsumoto's Interstella 5555 film in mind. The only "concept" Homework has - which is spelled out pretty clearly on "Teachers" - is that this is a house record, perhaps even an attempt to create a platonic ideal of house music. If you don't love house music, you're just not going to get as much out of Homework. I'm not at all trying to say that its charms are opaque to those without the specialist's knowledge - I imagine that for many people Homework may very well be the only, or at least the first, house music they ever bought - but the appeal is nonetheless just a tad more obscure than the user-friendly 70s and early 80s vibe throughout Discovery.

When I listen to Homework now I'm still amazed by how powerful it sounds. I don't know why - and I recognize that this is going to sound really stupid - but it really does seem that they don't make it like this anymore, at least not that I hear. There's a solidity to the basslines and an authority to the kick drums that you just don't hear anymore. It sounds powerful in a way that I can't really explain, from "Revolution 909" to "Da Funk" all the way through to "Alive," it successfully epitomizes the contradiction at the heart of all the best dance music, the conflict between mechanical precision and human passion. You are overwhelmed, demolished by the intimation of a power larger than yourself - it's the pulse of the synthesizer waking up at the end of the album, on "Alive," perhaps the biggest sound possible. That's why Homework is such a good album: it sounds like nothing else, bigger than anything you've ever heard. Discovery may have songs and emotions and all those good things, but Homework has God's heartbeat throbbing like an 808.

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