Was Daft Punk’s ‘Human After All’ an Act of Self Sabotage?

Was Daft Punk’s ‘Human After All’ an Act of Self Sabotage?

Made in just six weeks, Human After All is widely considered Daft Punk’s worst album. But as author Ben Cardew writes in an excerpt from his new book, Daft Punk’s Discovery: The Future Unfurled, making a bad album might have been the whole point.

Human After All, Daft Punk’s third studio album, was the anti-Discovery: dark where Discovery was light, crude where Discovery was sophisticated, and hated where Discovery was loved. In the Daft Punk discography, Homework could be Discovery’s little brother – recognisably of the same stock but notably less developed; and Daft Club was Discovery’s alternate reality. But Human After All is Discovery’s evil twin: the two albums inextricably linked but utterly opposed in character.

Discovery – and the Alive 2006/7 tour that followed it – were moments of re-birth, when Daft Punk sloughed off old preconceptions to come back with something brilliant and new. Human After All, coming in between them, was more like a bad illness, a sudden, nasty shock to the system that forced the band to re-evaluate. Nobody really liked Human After All at the time. But looking back on it now, it seems a necessary move, a purge that enabled Daft Punk to go on, as well as the darkness that allowed Discovery’s light to shine that much brighter.

Human After All was how it was because of Discovery. In some ways – notably its use of guitars – Human After All fed off the lessons Daft Punk had learned with Discovery. In others, it was like an allergic reaction to Discovery and all that the album represented. So brilliant was Discovery that some people saw it as the band’s undoing, a vast, impeccable peak they could never hope to return to. 

On a practical level, too, Human After All seemed like a reaction to the band’s struggles with Discovery. Daft Punk spent two and a half years making their second album – maybe more – and its gestation doesn’t seem to have been easy, with the duo moving away from an initial direction that suggested straight-up house music after recording a few songs. 

Eric Chédeville, who worked with Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo in Le Knight Club, says that Thomas Bangalter worked particularly hard on Discovery’s production and was “really tired” by the end of the process. Human After All would be the counterpoint to this extended incubation – an album recorded and mixed in six weeks then thrown out into the world to sink or swim. (The actual recording process for Human After All was said to be two weeks, with four weeks of mixing.)

Thomas Bangalter explained to Time magazine that, after making Discovery “with a lot of different drum machines and synthesisers and this idea of an unlimited amount of time to experiment… we really liked the idea of setting a new kind of parameter for us, which was a limited time with a limited kit. Two drum machines and two guitars and one vocoder and one eight-track machine. We were interested in the roughness somehow and the contrast it provided.”

The contrast between the two albums is very evident. Discovery sounds like it was recorded at infinite leisure, stitched together out of the finest materials like some kind of imperial quilt. Human After All, on the other hand, has a distinctly unfinished air, as if jammed together with rusty nails in the pouring rain. On Discovery, different musical sections flow into each other. On Human After All, sounds play for a bit, then just stop, as if they don’t have anywhere else to go and didn’t enjoy the journey much anyway.

You can hear this in Human After All’s rather crude use of sampling. On Discovery, Daft Punk employed samples as a kind of spice: important to their music but rarely overbearing and always cleverly used to add flavour. The samples on Discovery are typically chopped up into little pieces, fed through various filters and effects and re-purposed. Human After All uses only one sample, but it is so rudimentary that it marks a rare moment in Daft Punk’s recorded history when you wonder if the commentators who decry sampling as simple sonic robbery might actually have a point.

Robot Rock was the lead single from Human After All, released one month after its parent album to a distinctly mixed reception. (I like the song; Pitchfork called it “a poor man’s Aerodynamic”, while Stylus claimed that it “does nothing, means nothing and goes nowhere for an unconscionably long time”). Robot Rock features three samples from Release The Beast, a 1980 song by US funk-rock band Breakwater. Of these, two are relatively brief – one drum fill and one guitar stab. But it is the third that dominates the song: Daft Punk lift two bars of Release The Beast, which they loop to create the musical backing for large parts of Robot Rock. 

It’s far from a subtle use: large sections of Robot Rock are essentially made up of this sample, guitar, drums, synth squiggle and all, with Daft Punk adding the song’s robotic, two-word vocal: “rock/robot rock”. Conveniently, if you want to know what Robot Rock sounds like without this two-bar sample, you can: Daft Punk’s own Maximum Overdrive mix of Robot Rock, which was released on the Robot Rock single, dispenses with the long sample, taking with it most of the song’s charm and listenability, to leave something that sounds like Spacemen 3’s maddeningly repetitive drone-rock classic Revolution fed through the robot mangle.

Robot Rock is perhaps the perfect example of how Human After All can come across as a poor relation to – or even perversion of – Discovery. Talking to Q magazine, Thomas Bangalter called the song “a tribute to the power of heavy rock chords”, an idea that is close enough to Discovery’s reinterpretation of rock’s musical tropes. But Robot Rock lacks the subtleness and finesse of Discovery songs like Aerodynamic, making it a poor reflection of that album’s considerable charms, like Discovery viewed through an old, corroded mirror that is half covered in grot.

In Anthem magazine, Thomas Bangalter compared the use of a sample on Robot Rock to his work on Roulé records. “On my label, we’ve been doing records that are nine minutes with only [a single] one-second loop, with even less foundation than there is on Robot Rock,” he said. “It’s always been a way to reinterpret things – sometimes it’s using [an] element from the past, or sometimes recreating them and fooling the eyes or the ears, which is just a fun thing to do.” 

He doesn’t mention it by name, but Bangalter is presumably referring to his work with DJ Falcon as Together, a project that took dance minimalism to extreme levels. Together made some genuinely beautiful music. But their final single, So Much Love To Give, came out in 2002, some three years before Human After All. And at the time it felt like the Together project had reached its peak, with the extreme, dazzling minimalism of their swan song leaving little room to manoeuvre. It is hard to see any kind of progress from Together to Robot Rockso, at best, Daft Punk’s extreme use of sampling is a call back to what Bangalter was doing three years previously, a far cry from Discovery’s leap into the future.

This crudeness extends to many of the sounds used on Human After All. Speaking to Time, Bangalter said that the group’s third album is related to Discovery in that it also speaks about “the dance between humanity and technology”. Perhaps more tellingly, he said that Human After All has “some kind of mechanical quality”, a remark that explains a lot of the album’s uglier flaws. 

Human After All is mechanical but not in the sense of an intricate clockwork motor or well-tuned sports car. Human After All is like the grinding of rusty gears or the troubling screech of industrial machinery that once inspired Black Sabbath. In Discovery, the robots might have powered down. On Human After All it sounds like they are being prepared for their own industrial grave, the album marked by a relentless mechanical howl.

At times, this pained repetition makes Human After All almost unlistenable. Steam Machine and The Brainwasher are particularly punishing, like twin engines of damnation. While Discovery was full of brilliantly interesting noises and moving parts, these songs consist of little more than a distorted synth riff apiece, an uninspired vocal and a juddering drum machine rhythm. 

There is a kind of rudimentary aggression to these songs that may well be intentional but doesn’t make for a rewarding listening experience. Discovery made the listener want to run into the street and declare their love for humanity; The Brainwasher makes you want to lower the volume and crawl under a blanket. Destruction can be an energetic force. But Steam Machine and The Brainwasher seems to have a kind of malevolent fatigue as if they are rotting from the inside. 

Steam Machine and The Brainwasher illustrate the deep thread of minimalism that runs through Human After All, just four years after Discovery helped to introduce a new strain of digital maximalism to the world. Discovery, at its non-Romanthony core, burst with ideas and creative left turns: plans were packed on top of propositions, which sat astride schemes and projects. You never knew where a song like Aerodynamic would end up. But you know precisely where a song like Steam Machine will end because it won’t be far from the beginning. Repetition can be invigorating. But the effect on Human After All is frequently deadening, the listener’s senses slowly shutting down in a kind of survival instinct.

Human After All’s lyrics, too, are shot through with a kind of will-this-do minimalism. Discovery had songs, with intros, verses and choruses – you could, at a push, play Digital Love or Something About You on the piano. And if the lyrics weren’t always outstanding, they generally made a point or communicated an emotion. 

The lyrics on Human After All, by contrast, seem lazy, like a placeholder that the band are waiting for someone else to come along and replace. Most songs simply repeat one line – or even one word – relentlessly until they become drained of meaning, with Technologic’s digital spiel a winning exception. There are no guest vocalists on Human After All (although improbable rumours suggest that George Michael was approached), compared to Discovery’s wonderful range of voices, which only serves to reinforce this monotony.

The notion that Human After All’s ten tracks are essentially demos, knocked up in six weeks, has gained credence among Daft Punk fans disappointed by the album’s rough sounds. It is an idea that doesn’t make sense, though: a demo implies that the group will later put together a more sophisticated version of the song in question, which was clearly not Daft Punk’s intention with Human After All. (The one apparent “demo” that does exist from this time reportedly comes from a competition for German Daft Punk fans to remix Technologic. To allow them to do so, the band released the stems from the song, with the pack also home to three unreleased musical ideas, which an enterprising producer put together and uploaded to SoundCloud.)

All the same, a couple of the better tracks on Human After All do sound like they could have been demos for Discovery. Make Love – even its name sounds like a demo – comes across as a primitive piano-plus-drum-machine sketch for a sister song to Discovery’s Voyager, its spacey chords, yearning vocal and late-night guitar picking straight out of the Discovery songbook. But they have little of that album’s elegance and warmth. On Discovery, Make Love might have been overlaid in satin-y synth and elastic bass; on Human After All it just kind of sits there, cold and abandoned in its sparse instrumental clothing, looping around in endless circles like a winning idea that will never be developed. 

Emotion, which closes Human After All, shares Discovery’s sense of longing, a mixture of ethereal chord sequence and forlorn vocal melody. What the song has is actually pretty great – Canadian producer Dan Snaith (aka Caribou) compared it to Daft Punk boiled down to their essence in an interview with Pitchfork. But, perhaps because of its similarity in feel to Discovery, Emotion feels like it is lacking in its makeup. Good minimal music – such as Bangalter’s work with Together – makes you feel like nothing more could possibly be added to the track to make it any better. But Emotion feels like it could benefit from some Discovery-style care or an Aerodynamic left turn, as it loops on and on for seven eventually testing minutes.

Human After All shouldn’t be seen as entirely lacking. Emotion is one of a handful of strong songs on the album, including the title track, Robot Rock and Technologic (these last three tracks are the only songs from Human After All to appear on Musique Vol. 1 1993–2005, a Daft Punk greatest hits of sorts, released in 2006.)

The rest of the time, though, it is hard to escape the clinging idea that Human After All is more of a reaction to Discovery than an entirely original work, as if Daft Punk were so disgusted with their second album that they became more focused on undoing it than creating something that would stand on its own two feet.

This shadow of potential antipathy is found right from the start of Human After All, which kicks off with the title track, its very name a reaction to Discovery’s robotic conceits. On Discovery, Daft Punk adopted robotic personae and sang of being robots; on the very first track of their new album, they reveal themselves to be Human After All. It is a statement that is both provocative – upsetting one of the central tenets of Daft Punk’s previous album – and vaguely reassuring. Daft Punk aren’t perfect; they are humans like the rest of us.

It also represents a strangely apologetic way to start an album, with Daft Punk apparently begging forgiveness for their humanly faults. If to err is human, then Daft Punk’s coming out as human beings is a way of begging for leniency. The question is: for what? What perceived failing do Daft Punk need to ask our forgiveness for? My interpretation is that Daft Punk are begging our forgiveness (or perhaps understanding) for Human After All itself; that Human After All (both the song and album title) represent a meta-commentary on the crude natures of the music within, much as Too Long seemed to do on Discovery.

 Daft Punk, as very self-aware musicians, would surely have known that Human After All represented a step down in quality from Discovery. That’s not to say they thought it a worse album exactly – they may, in fact, have preferred their new record to their previous work. But, objectively, Human After All has none of the lush quality and gilded sound design of Discovery. And nor could it: a record dashed off in six weeks will almost certainly not have the same sonic breadth as one made over two and a half years. So this step down happened by design. 

Why would Daft Punk do this? Why create a record that broke so sharply with all they had achieved on Discovery? 

You could, perhaps, put it down to the understandable desire to do something different after the success of their second album, to branch out into ugly duckling new territory. But Human After All seems such an extreme reaction to Discovery that this explanation in itself doesn’t sound sufficient. Would Human After All need such venom if the band were merely changing direction?

In a 2007 interview with The Fader, Thomas Bangalter outlined the band’s rather extreme aims with Human After All. “As much as the first two albums were entertaining, we felt like the third album was about this feeling of either fear or paranoia,” he said. “It’s not a fun record. It’s not something intended to make you feel good.” 

This is a fairly extreme example of Human After All as the anti-Discovery, with Discovery’s focus on rose-tinted nostalgia and elegant looks to the past replaced with grinding paranoia. In four short years, Daft Punk had gone from celebrating music and feeling so free to making music that wasn’t fun by design.

This extreme shift has led some people to suggest that Human After All was a deliberate act of self-sabotage on Daft Punk’s side. There’s no evidence to back this up. But they wouldn’t have been the first pop act to do so: Prince, Lou Reed, Neil Young and Mike Oldfield have all recorded purposely abstruse albums for a mixture of personal circumstances and frustration with the music business. The theory runs that Daft Punk were so utterly overwhelmed by the success of their first two albums that they set out to produce a follow up that would take them down a commercial notch or two. This seems far too contrived to be true. 

Speaking to Anthem, Bangalter suggested that he and Guy-Man were not entirely in control of the direction their music took. “You need a starting point to create something, then you need to go with the flow, very spontaneously to make the thing that makes the most sense,” he said. “The work of art is controlling you. We never try to go against that or against that process.” 

The decision to record Human After All quickly and to create something very different to Discovery may have been conscious choices, then. But they do not necessarily equate to self-sabotage. Indeed, in a 2013 interview with Dazed magazine, De Homem-Christo said that “Every album we’ve done is tightly linked with our lives”. “You cannot separate your life and your music and your job; everything’s linked,” he added. Perhaps most importantly, De Homem-Christo explained that “The internal, personal stuff Thomas went through during Human After All made it closer to where he was at the time.”

So could Human After All have been an unconscious act of self-sabotage on the part of Daft Punk? In a 2006 interview with Mixmag, published soon after their Coachella show, Bangalter talked of the “weight” of following up their first two records. Could this weight have led to a subconscious desire to escape from Discovery and everything it entailed? It would have been understandable if so.

And, in a way, it worked. Daft Punk’s critical and commercial standing took a nosedive with the release of Human After All. The feverish expectation around the band dropped, and Daft Punk started 2006 with a tabula rasa. Nobody really knew what the band were going to do and, in all honesty, not all that many people cared. Human After All was like a prescribed burn, the farmer torching their field so that new crops might grow; it allowed Daft Punk to breathe again.

But Human After All didn’t allow Discovery to be forgotten. In reacting so strongly against Discovery, Human After All is like the mythical absence that makes the heart grow fonder, like Joni Mitchell singing that we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone. In becoming the anti-Discovery, Human After All only lent weight to its illustrious predecessor. And for that, we can only be thankful.

Ben Cardew’s ‘Daft Punk’s Discovery: Future Unfurled’ is out now via Velocity Press. Buy it here.



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