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‘Human After All’: The Truth Behind Daft Punk’s Misunderstood Third Album
In Depth

‘Human After All’: The Truth Behind Daft Punk’s Misunderstood Third Album

An exhilaratingly punishing look at our love/hate relationship with technology, Daft Punk’s ‘Human After All’ album remains a career high.


French electronica legends Daft Punk’s third studio album was the chart-topping, award-nominated Human After All. Released by Virgin on 14 March 2005, it has a mid-2000s electro-house sound which is a raw synthesis of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo’s first album, Homework, and the lauded melodies and colour of its follow-up, Discovery. Crucially, it was smashed together in a remarkably speedy recording process (for maximum immediacy) and with deliberately punchy editing and brutal harmonics which perfectly illustrated the duo’s examination of our love/hate relationship with technology

Listen to Human After All here.

Almost too effective

Unlike Daft Punk’s previous albums, Human After All was not universally praised at the time, receiving a rough ride from some typically rockist journalists who misunderstood electronica as the musical equivalent of a performing monkey with a rictus grin. Indeed, The Village Voice went so far as to incomprehensibly call the album “flat”. Clearly, a record that would have been considered a career peak for many acts, and which more closely reflected the hypnotic work often curated by Bangalter outside the group, Human After All’s concept almost proved too effective in bleaching out Discovery’s most lush features. However, the duo’s vision became clearer when they began to filter the tracks into their Alive tour, with the material then earning its rightful place among the best Daft Punk songs.

Opening the album, the catchy, funkily hiccupping and constantly climbing title track was also a single, with remixes from fellow French act Justice, German duo Alter Ego and DFA dance-rock act The Juan MacLean (some of these went on to join other single remixes on 2006’s companion release, Human After All: Remixes). But even this cut’s in-the-red vocoders are a light introduction to what follows.

Exhilaratingly punishing

The croaking, gurgling The Prime Time Of Your Life starts with a brief atmospheric Kraftwerk vamp before opening into a schaffel beat whose tempo soon spirals. Its video was filled with skeletons and other body-shock imagery, making for an impressively strange single which, on the album, shunts into the ripplingly funky Robot Rock. With more than a touch of Black Sabbath and Motörhead riffage, and a beat lifted from the glam-rock playbook, this song epitomises Human After All’s embrace of guitars, Daft Punk showing off their twin-neck axes in its stylish, retro video. The duo remixed it themselves for the single, switching into “maximum overdrive” (as their mix title suggests) and turning the track into a brutal, hypnotic, stripped-back electro-rock behemoth that wouldn’t seem out of place in a krautrock set. It’s an exhilaratingly punishing piece of music.

Creepy and acidically bubbling, Steam Machine delivers a particularly harsh, disconcerting morass of edits like the audio equivalent of a David Cronenberg flick, before Make Love finally releases the pressure mid-album, set adrift on blurry Balearic bliss. With its minimally looped elastication of a moment, the track presaged the hypnagogic pop of several years hence, and notably features the closest thing Human After All has to untreated vocals: breathily intoning in the background, it seems to ask, Is this the humanity we miss, or just an illusion?

Martial stomps, haywire twists

Elsewhere, The Brainwasher and Television Rules The Nation most obviously show the acknowledged influence of George Orwell’s literary classic Nineteen Eighty-Four on the album. The martial stomp down The Brainwasher’s memory hole again brings elements of Black Sabbath to the fore, with an opening skit on Iron Man joined by cascading video-game synth lines and haywire twists of vocal effects (Erol Alkan also located bleepy early 90s rave connections within its mechanical innards, for a remix on one of the singles). Television Rules The Nation seems to take inspiration from Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, but with a wryly shrugged, monosyllabic newspeak admission that the telescreens won the battle for Oceania.

Sharing something with the similarly chanted vocals of the Discovery smash hit (and Kanye West-inspiring) Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, riddling single Technologic is built on a chirruping vocal riding a Chicagoan beat. It was remixed for single release by a host of the duo’s electro-styled buddies, including French producer Vitalic, Peaches (who revoiced the piece in her own inimitable style), and Basement Jaxx, and almost immediately inspired Busta Rhymes’ dead-eyed hip-hop hit Touch It. The video featured an appropriately cobbled-together looking, disturbingly unfuturistic-seeming robot.

A startling, essential counterpoint

Closing Human After All, Emotion revisits some of the feelings of Make Love, but the vocoder strains heard through the static deliver a severely buckled, harmonically bent take on how humanity might survive a technological revolution of its own devising. Not for the first time on the album, it also wrong-foots the listener, tempo-wise, as if the robots know best. Daft Punk deliver a fizzing sound palette here, one so strange that its richness almost curdles into queasy listening. Adeptly avoiding that fate, the duo release a veritable fright of ghosts from the machine, influencing the likes of Darkstar in the process.

Divorced from the time, Human After All now feels like a startling and essential counterpoint to some of Daft Punk’s effortlessly poppy songs (Discovery’s One More Time, the Pharrell Williams-Nile Rodgers collaboration Get Lucky). A truly brave statement best heard as a whole, the album distils the duo’s sound into a single hit of pure adrenaline.

In ducking the expectations created by its immensely popular predecessor, Daft Punk spoke – in few words and a lot of misunderstood textures – eloquently about the interface between humans and technology. That interface often seems like a hackneyed electronica trope, explored by just about everyone since Kraftwerk, but Daft Punk may, for now, have the last word on it. Under those helmets, they were, indeed, human after all.

Find out which robot-rocking cuts made our list of the best Daft Punk songs of all time.

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