DAFT PUNK, Human After All
director's cut, Blender, 2005
by Simon Reynolds
For every great band, there’s a moment of optimum ripeness, the point at which they deserve to conquer the world. Daft Punk reached it with 2001’s Discovery, on which they deliciously wove elements of Seventies FM radio soft-rock into their trademark French disco-house. The result was beauties like “One More Time" (electronica’s “More Than A Feeling”, a hymn to the redemptive power of music itself) and “Digital Love” (this decade’s most poignant love song so far). By rights Discovery should have shifted Thriller-level quantities, but instead it sold a merely decent half-million in America. After such a (relative) rebuff, even the most fanatical sonic visionaries might find it hard to muster renewed passion for the aesthetic battle. Sadly, the most powerful sensation emitted by Human After All is of a group going through the motions. Everything burstingly ecstatic and open-hearted about Discovery has been replaced by an archly ironic dance-rock that feels desultory and numb verging on autistic. It’s as if the duo--Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo--have retreated into their studio playpen to lick their wounds.
Discovery alchemized its shlocky sources (ELO, Supertramp, Van Halen) to achieve a splendor of sound that felt almost religious. This time round, the endless vocoderized man-machine vocals feel about as fresh as a post-Comes Alive Frampton album,. The clipped and clinical-sounding guitar riffs distil the air-punching aggression of a thousand sports stadium anthems and the four-square beats are about as funky as The Scorpions. When Daft Punk do come up with a great lick--“Robot Rock,” “Television Rules The Nation”--they don’t go anywhere with it, just wear out its welcome through deadening reiteration.
Human After All does improve with repeated listens. Every track contains a couple of cool sounds (often strange metallic gurgles like a cyborg with indigestion). “Steam Machine” is so plodding and cumbersome, its ugliness becomes strangely compelling. “The Brainwasher” raises a smile with its opening parody of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” “Technologic” cleverly replicates the neurotic restlessness of the computer age with its looped vocal running through the endless options that “enhance” our lives: “plug it, play it, burn it, rip it, drag and drop it, zip - unzip it,” ad infinitum.
Revealingly, though, the most endearing track is the least robo-rockin’. With its mellow piano and idyllic guitar-picking conjuring a mood of sensuality tinged with sadness, “Make Love” could almost be a Bruce Hornsby loop. It’s the only time this album approaches the bittersweet bliss of its predecessor Discovery. Mostly, Human After All is the proverbial diminished return. If you’re already a fan, you’ll most likely learn to love this album. But once upon a time Daft Punk looked like it was going to be so much more than merely a cult band.