Review: LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Time will kill James Murphy, but LCD Soundsystem is not dead yet
Review: LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
James Murphy, head maestro of dance-rock project LCD Soundsystem, has never been a young man. He arrived in the public eye at the age of 32, young in body and old at heart, with the debut single “Losing My Edge,” a first-person fear-stricken account from an aging hipster, clinging to his record collection and to the memories of his formative experiences in the music scene as proof of his clout against the young kids “coming up from behind.”
Murphy has always used LCD as a diary for his mid-life crisis, with three studio albums across five years, culminating with This is Happening in 2010, serving to chronicle a once-rowdy punk’s struggle to slow down, let go of old insecurities, and cling tightly to those “friends who always make [the nights] feel good,” as he wistfully sang. In 2011, after the release of the project’s aforementioned third album, Murphy boldly burned it all down, choosing to retire the band with a stunning three-hour-plus performance at Madison Square Garden. When asked what he intended to do now that he was walking away from the indie rockstardom that he had enjoyed up to that point, Murphy replied: “I really like making coffee.” It seemed as though Murphy had said all that was on his mind about growing old, finished his grand musical diary, and settled comfortably after barreling through his mid-life crisis as a nine-year-long dance party performed for tightly-packed, sweaty and adoring crowds.
But now, Murphy is back, alongside Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney and the rest of the mercenary crew of musicians that form LCD Soundsystem. Official confirmation of their reunion broke in January of 2016, after much scuttlebutt hushed down by fans who couldn’t believe rumors that were too good to be true. Now, after nearly two years of touring that’s proved the band hasn’t lost a single solitary step from their days as one of the most fervently loved live acts in music, the comeback album, American Dream, is here. So what’s changed?
If the content of this album is any indication, everything has changed for Murphy. Since ending LCD, he’s been married, had a child, gotten much older, and lost a lot of heroes. All it takes to know that Murphy’s influences are a huge part of his identity as an artist is one listen to that first single he ever did. Now, the once-humorous recitation of concerts attended and records collected in “Losing My Edge” probably sounds a little too much to Murphy like reading names inscribed on a war memorial.
David Bowie, whom Murphy idolized and then came to work with directly as a drummer for his final studio album (Blackstar in 2016) can be felt all over American Dream. In “I Used To,” a melancholic track with a tinge of garage-rock stomp, Murphy seems to attempt to speak to him directly; “I used to wait all night for the rock transmissions, so where’d you go?” It’s as if the kid narrating Bowie’s “Starman” who heard that “hazy cosmic jive” late one night finally grew up and is now wondering how he’ll ever feel the same way again, now that Ziggy Stardust’s messages don’t come through the speaker anymore. On the very next track on the album; “Change Yr Mind,” Murphy sings in a register that eerily evokes Bowie at his darkest and most detached. Dressing up in the old robes of his fallen hero doesn’t seem to give him any solace, as the fragmented, freely-associated snatches of narrative glimpsed by his lyrics suggest Murphy is reaching the end of his rope: “I ain’t seen anyone for days. I still have yet to leave the bed.” The motif of sleep and dreams is carried throughout the album, with most of the tracks seeming to take place in those lean hours of the morning or night, before or after sleep, where the crises of the self seem to stare you down at your weakest. Murphy again feeds his personal life directly into the lyrical makeup of these tracks, but he knows his plight is surely not exclusive to him. In our modern political climate, a song about the most depressing hangover imaginable has a certain bitter poignancy when the title is “American Dream.”
LCD fans shouldn’t balk at songs that deal with heartbreak and loss, as these subjects comprise much of the work from the pre-retirement era of the band. Followers of the group feeling wary that this album is a downtrodden affair can also rest assured that American Dream features production as rich as any album Murphy has done in the past, with the same staggering sonic depth to match his reputation as an audiophile’s musician. The throwback club-ready hit is here in “Tonite”: chintzy cowbells, synth-bass and talkbox choruses amalgamating into the ruffled and somehow effortlessly cooler older stepbrother of the nu-disco songs that have taken over the Billboard charts since the last Daft Punk album. “Emotional Haircut” would induce laughs at the multitude of uses of its titular refrain if it all didn’t sound so urgent. Murphy screams over a fanged instrumental, punctuating the aggressive mosh-pit vibe with one of the most mournful lines on an album sick with death: “you got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete, and you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat.” On “How Do You Sleep?” a three-minute buildup segues into one of the best bass-drops of the band’s career, unexpectedly turning a wounded missive on being betrayed by an old friend into a four-on-the-floor banger of a track.
American Dream is the rare comeback album devoid of naïveté, anticipating and addressing every fear. For those that feared the group would be treading water with a reprise of old sounds and old ideas, this record finds fresh new angles and sounds while still sounding like LCD. For those (upon hearing of their return) who cynically pictured a band beyond their years who should have stayed retired, Murphy and company remain as sharp as ever, producing technically masterful music that can make you laugh and shed a tear all in the same song. Most importantly, LCD Soundsystem remains relevant, with an album that sounds just as panicked and frantic as being alive in 2017 would warrant any person to be. If every new album is as honest and musically adventurous as American Dream, James Murphy is very welcome to stay out of retirement as long as he likes.