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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Digital Love" is my favorite electronic track of all time

...and I break it down today to pay tribute to the two robots with human souls who made it.

One year ago today — February 22, 2021, Daft Punk announced their disbandment.

It's nigh impossible to accurately express the impact Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter had together on the world of music. To put it as succinctly as possible, the robots first defined French house and brought it to the masses, then humanized contemporary electronic music. In an age of musical circuitry in which they fully took part, many of their productions remained organic — they had a certain soul to them that can really be felt with even a surface listening. This feeling is especially prominent in their fourth and final album, Random Access Memories (2013), which spawned global hit "Get Lucky," as well as their subsequent work, including the Weeknd's "I Feel It Coming." However, I hear it come through on my personal favorite record of theirs: 2001's Discovery.

A foray into a lively, New York-derived house sound that owes much to disco and R&B, Discovery is Daft Punk at their most electronically savvy. Their sampling of everything from Little Anthony & the Imperials to Barry Manilow to the Electric Light Orchestra — and still others which remain undiscovered — is nothing short of masterful; through their chopping up and re-gluing, they elevated the original material while also creating a completely new atmosphere. This process is behind enduring singles "One More Time" (sampling Eddie Johns) and "Harder Better Faster Stronger" (sampling Edwin Birdsong), and it's also behind the song I'm discussing today as my tribute to the duo.

"Digital Love," the third track and third single from Discovery, encapsulates everything I love about Daft Punk. Yes, it's a thoroughly electronic, 21st-century dreamer's anthem, but it's also innately human thanks to its straightforward lyrics and epic solo. Enjoy the track for yourself before I dive into it.

Like much of Discovery, "Digital Love" begins with a sample, and what I appreciate about this sample flip is how simple yet emotive it is. While on other tracks Daft Punk may chop up various pieces of one sample record (see "One More Time" again, or "Aerodynamic" via Sister Sledge) or take multiple samples from different sources and glue them together to make their main line ("Face to Face" takes from *eleven* tracks, per WhoSampled), "Digital Love" is largely built up from a single, clean two-measure sample: the third and fourth bars of George Duke's "I Love You More." Daft Punk don't hide the sample at all; not only is there from the introduction, but it's also easy to hear where it's looped.

Yet, even though its presence is obvious, there's something truly compelling about how the Frenchmen use the loop. Owing in part to its placement in "I Love You More" and in part to the specific chords in entails, the sample progression remains eternally unresolved. The last chord in the loop, which is usually transcribed as D Major over E in the bass, feels like it's supposed to go somewhere, only to fall back into a regular D Major with the root in the bass. All the while, that first D Major isn't a tonic chord. It's the IV, the subdominant, in the key of A Major — a chord which never appears in its restful root position. The note A is present quite often, especially as the long guitar note in the sample loop, and A Major is heard in first inversion (with C-sharp in the bass) for a beat in the loop, but it doesn't feel at peace. Instead, the chords add to the sense of longing Daft Punk present through their lyrics.

The lyrics themselves aren't really much to dive into — they are what they are, and they're a recounting of a dream the night before that ends just before romance really gets going. It leaves the narrator hoping that they and their love interest will "make this dream come true." Lyrics don't have to be poetic to be impactful; they just have to get the point across. The only vaguely poetic line is the last one, the repeated bridge question of "Why don't you play the game?" The narrator is waiting for the object of their affection to reciprocate the love they feel for them, and just like the song's chord progression, the question remains unresolved. (Interestingly, 12 years later, Daft Punk released a track called "The Game of Love" as part of Random Access Memories; I guess they remembered all along.)

Or should I say, "progressions"? The chords do in fact change, as the sample is not simply left to loop throughout the entire track. First, for eight measures between the chorus and bridge, the loop is set aside in favor of isolated, chopped-up guitar chords from the same George Duke intro. Then, in the bridge, Daft Punk introduce a Wurlitzer, an electronic piano with a distinctive sound made eternal by Supertramp. In fact, the robots had in the studio the very same keyboard Rodger Hodgson, Rick Davies and company employed, and it greatly inspired them. I get a real Breakfast in America feeling out of the main line they play, especially in the tinge of whimsy I hear courtesy of the very top note and its slight bend. Then Daft Punk introduce the rising bass line for the section, again on the Wurlitzer. Like the other progression before it, this figure never resolves, and it never features A Major in any way.

What the bridge does feature is the prelude to the iconic solo section, played on a guitar-like synth with the assistance of a vocoder. It begins by echoing the melody of "Why won't you play the game?" before launching into the stratosphere. The solo section is a unifying and defining moment for the track. It's initially backed by a combination of the Wurlitzer progression and the main sample loop, before the chopped guitar chords return and the main loop then has the backing space all to its own for the ending portion. Meanwhile, the solo's opening was foreshadowed in the ascending figure at the end of the 'chorus' ("We'll make this dream come true"), and it hints back at that rhythm again near its end.

The solo is a premium example of Daft Punk humanizing electronic music, as I mentioned near this post's beginning. In mimicking guitar techniques like tapping and pitch bending with a whammy bar, they created a damn convincing digital facsimile that helps invoke the track's title. In doing so, they produced my favorite minute (roughly) of any electronic track ever made, owing to the artistry and emotion it captures. I also love it because it's so approachable from the perspective of someone who isn't necessarily enamored with house or any dance music like I am. It's the main reason I use "Digital Love" to introduce those curious to Daft Punk, or sometimes to electronic dance music in general... well, apart from the fact that it's also my favorite electronic track, period.

After they're gone, the work artists leave behind remain as evidence of their career and their impact on the world. Daft Punk may be no more, but "Digital Love" continues to stand as a marker of their achievements in the musical realm. They may have been robots, but through this track they made their humanness more than present, forever changing electronic production in its wake.


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