Work with me here for a second.
You're up in the club, listening to the types of things that make clubs get crunk, sort of dancing, spilling your drink, paying too much attention to your shoes, when you suddenly realize you're bored beyond belief. You're uncomfortably numbed by one of the following realizations: 1) The guy next to you smells like lox--in a bad way; 2) Trance sucks and sounds like something played to pass time, not indulge in it; or 3) In the universe of dance music, there's this vexingly unnecessary chasm between records made for dancing and records made for listening, between oh-shit! hedonism and no-shit! academia, between music that sounds good right now and music that will sound good tomorrow. You blink, spill the rest of your drink and split, patting yourself on the back for taking action and leaving all those losers behind. If you experienced Realization No. 3, you're especially proud, confident that you've discovered the central fault line of "electronica" and are amped to get up early and take care of it.
In the morning you open your eyes only to be disappointed: The lox guy is next to you, your mom's asking you if you've ever heard of this Sasha and Digweed person, and everyone else recognized the same problem you did, many of them doing it more than a decade ago. Worse, two French guys in funny robot helmets and haute couture have already solved it, calling themselves Daft Punk and making a record named Discovery that is the most fun, most exciting, most creative, most best dance record you've heard this year. You grit your teeth and touch your toes and gulp and take a listen to what's on the radio: "One More Time," the record's unstoppable first single, a chewy-ass bubblegum bubble of freedom-fighting male diva vocals, tinny toy guitars and a mercilessly pounding four-on-the-floor pulse below the deck.
Like all great songs-as-five-minute-liberators (um, Cher's "Believe"), it's over before you know it. But as always, the beat goes on. In Discovery's case, and on and on. Thus the faux speed metal of "Aerodynamic," the so-cheesy-it's-beyond-cheesy soft rock of "Something About Us" and the breezy ambient soul of "Nightvision." It's all enough to make you forget you were trying to beat Daft Punk to the punch, dulling your disappointment and clearing the way for a giddiness you haven't tasted since the first time you saw "Video Killed the Radio Star" on MTV and got your hair to do that cool thing it won't ever do anymore.
To Thomas Bangalter, who doesn't really like doing interviews but is more talkative than his nearly silent partner, Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo, solving the problem was as simple as isolating it. "Some of the purpose of rock music and pop music is really interesting," he says on the phone in his deceptively fluid English. "Just to have a nice soundtrack to your life, that can bring music into different situations, from your radio in your car to just in the kitchen or at home or wherever you want."
That wide-reaching, all-purpose functionality spearheads a new mission for the duo, whose classic 1997 debut, Homework, was a key component of the American media's attempt to break electronic dance music into the U.S. mainstream. A much more skeletal record than Discovery, Homework made high art out of the martial beats and synth squeals (and, of course, vocoders) out of which modern house was built; "Da Funk," the album's lead single, even found a respectable audience in the recovering grunge fans that A&R people from coast to coast were working overtime to woo.
"I think that the statements and what we're interested in doing [with Discovery] was something different than the first album," Bangalter explains, "which was much more a statement about making electronic music and really minimal music accepted. Now that it is the case, and a lot of people have understood that and have understood minimal and electronic beats and electronic music, we really wanted to not do the same thing twice."
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They haven't. Frustrated with the division inherent in the culture ("There's one style which is things for the dance floor, and there's another one which is the music that people would listen to at home"), Bangalter and Homem-Christo set out to make a record reflective of the spectrum of moods and settings the average human--or, well, robot--experiences in day-to-day life. It makes for an astoundingly compelling listen--you'll spin Discovery a dozen times before its whole makes sense; when it does, you'll spin it a dozen more just to revel in it--but it's also a record that flies in the face of tradition.
The dance press' reaction to the record has been largely favorable (one magazine went as far as to call it the album of the new millennium), but mainstream dissenters have shown themselves, complaining about the record's alleged shallowness and its hollow '80s fetish, calling its creamy pop center a bid for the whims of hit-loving non-clubbers. But the guys behind the scrolling LCD displays seem so pure of heart ("Digital Love" is as guileless a love song as seems possible, android vocalist or no), it's hard to interpret the record's jubilant brio as anything but evidence of a journey well traveled.
"There still needs, I think, some digging," Bangalter says of electronic music's recent advances, both artistic and commercial. "More than anything I think we ask questions of legitimacy and the purpose and the meaning of the music we [do]. There was no way to just do the same thing on [Discovery] as on Homework; it would be not what we think is a creative approach--raising questions and trying to break new limits."
You think back to last night and ask yourself who was interested in raising questions or breaking limits. After you remember the answer is no one, you give another listen to "One More Time." You're still woozy from your nocturnal positions, but the song takes on a new shape, like it's something inevitable and impossible and ultimate at once. You rub your ears and wonder, Is it the future?