Daft Punk

Human After All

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Daft Punk has always been one of dance music's most flexible -- and accessible -- acts, spanning the relentless pulse of Homework and the lush, sprawling Discovery with a distinctive wit and playfulness that made fans of electronic music diehards and indie rockers alike. Though the long-awaited Human After All retains that playfulness, it's the duo's simplest album, which oddly enough, makes it their most difficult to embrace at first. Human After All was made in six weeks, and sounds like it -- and not always in a good way: the quick-and-dirty recording process and limited palette of grainy synths, vocoders, and guitars do lend a stripped-down, spontaneous feel, but just as often, this minimal approach feels like it's supporting minimal ideas. Most of Human After All's tracks concentrate on one or two heavily repeated motifs, giving some of the tracks the feeling of demos copied and pasted to a full song length (even more uncharitably, you could say that they sound like parts of a Daft Punk beats-and-loops construction kit). "Steam Machine," for example, starts off strong with a low-slung, low-rent drum machine beat and aptly hissy whispering, but fails to do much over the course of five minutes. Repetition and simplicity, or at least a certain kind of innocence, have been at the heart of Daft Punk's music since the beginning, but this formula doesn't always work on Human After All; this is particularly true on the album's softer songs, "Make Love" and "Emotion," both of which are pretty and evocative, but never quite pack the emotional punch that they threaten to. And though Human After All's linear quality is superficially like the duo's more danceable work, many of the tracks are too slow to ignite the dancefloor (however, "Television Rules the Nation"'s robotic, "Smoke on the Water" meets "Iron Man" guitar riff nails the cleverly stupid vibe that doesn't always connect on the rest of the album). All of this makes the album something of an odd beast, and the baffled reactions of some fans -- some of whom suggested that Human After All was a fake album by the band made to foil digital piracy when it leaked several months before its official release date -- is understandable. Daft Punk aren't responsible for their listeners' expectations, but they release music so rarely that this low-res album with just ten songs (or nine, if you don't count the 19-second channel-surfing blip that is "On/Off") does, initially, feel like a disappointment. However, Human After All's best tracks do make the duo's somewhat confounding aesthetic choices work: "The Brainwasher"'s trippy opening and mischievous riffs have a real sense of tension and momentum; "Robot Rock" takes Discovery's guitar worship even further, forging it into cybernetic metal; and the irresistible "Technologic," with its catchy technobabble and cheap-and-cheerful disco beat, feels like the next evolution of tracks like "Teachers" and "Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger." Since the album is on a smaller scale than Daft Punk's previous albums, it's not surprising that its pleasures are smaller too. The way that the synth, guitar, and vocoder lines blur into mecha-orga unity on the oddly bittersweet title track, and the way that the schaffel beat on "Prime Time of Your Life" gradually overtakes the song, eventually speeding up and devouring it, may not change the way listeners think about music the way that Discovery or Homework did, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. Human After All ends up being just not-bad (a first for Daft Punk); that may be hard to accept for fans that demand nothing less than brilliance from them, but just because it isn't an instant classic doesn't mean that it's totally unworthy, either.

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