The new album by LCD Soundsystem, American Dream, features an unconcealed enthusiasm for the work of other artists
LCD Soundsystem’s comeback album refines the dance-rock eyebrow-archers’ template
Like a lot of successful producers, James Murphy is good at making profitable connections. A story he used to tell was how, as a young man, he was overheard chatting to a friend in a restaurant and approached by a fellow diner about becoming a writer on a TV show. The point of this ultimately self-deprecating anecdote was that he had declined the offer, but in so doing turned down a job on legendary sitcom Seinfeld.
He has been involved in demos for Britney Spears and worked in collaboration with director Noah Baumbach on Ben Stiller movie Greenberg. When starting out, meanwhile, he received comprehensive instructions from legendary record producer Steve Albini on how to build a recording studio – simply by having the initiative to send him a nice letter. And he is surely the least fit man to ever have been commissioned by Nike (as he was in 2007, to produce a workout tape of original music).
In recent years, Murphy’s collaborations have come to involve even more prestigious names – 2013 was a particularly good year. After retiring his band LCD Soundsystem (which he did to much wailing and gnashing of hipster teeth in 2011), he co-produced Reflektor, an album by Arcade Fire – retaining their grandeur, while dismantling their tendency toward pomposity.
The lead track on the album featured an unusually high-profile backing vocalist. The presence of Arcade Fire fan David Bowie in the room led to some meaningful exchanges about each other’s work and – almost inevitably – them hitting it off. When Bowie released his single Love Is Lost at the end of that year, it came accompanied by an expansive, 10-minute reworking by Murphy, the Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix).
It was a great endorsement. In life, Bowie was noted (in some cases, notorious) as a maven for coming trends and a magpie for interesting sounds. Still, what Bowie borrowed, he generally made something great out of, and in that respect, Murphy and he have a lot in common.
The new album by LCD Soundsystem, American Dream, features an unconcealed enthusiasm for the work of other artists. The 70-minute record liberally draws from Suicide, Talking Heads, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, New Order and Bowie (chiefly his Low and Scary Monsters albums from 1977 and 1980) – but still come out sounding only more LCD Soundsystem. Which is to say a grand, amusing and thoughtful electronic rock outfit.
Murphy may also have drawn a more subtle kind of influence during his time with Bowie. When Bowie released The Next Day, nothing had been heard from him for 10 years. Then, suddenly, there he was, emerging from his apparent retirement with an album that referenced and reflected – in the music, in the lyrics, even in the artwork – highlights from his own past work.
Clearly LCD Soundsystem were not an act on Bowie’s level (though they did play their final 2011 farewell show at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden) and have not been absent as long. Still, Murphy is a smart man, and he won’t have been unaware of the possibilities available to him by retiring and making a comeback.
The first LCD Soundsystem album for five years, in its way, also reflects subtly on Murphy’s own earlier work. He is a witty, garrulous fellow, and LCD Soundsystem’s work developed across three studio albums into something grand and moving, but when Murphy debuted his new band in 2002, it was with an exaggerated version of how he then appeared. Which was someone perhaps a little too old to be starting out, struggling to make sense of the modern music world. In short, someone facing down the internet, feeling out-gunned. The narrator of Losing My Edge, the band’s debut single, is a fair-minded and likeable guy, but he is aggrieved that his deep knowledge of cool music, expensively won in rare record stores, is being devalued by free exchange of information on the internet.
“But I was there,” he vainly protests, as he insists on his presence at pivotal musical events of the last 40 years. Each claim (he was there “at the first Suicide practices”; “when Captain Beefheart started his first band”) is more fanciful than the last, as Murphy uses him to satirise the notion of traditional “cool”, humbled before the democratising forces of web technology. It’s progress and it might wipe him out.
Clearly, Murphy has no problem with cool. Throughout this new recording he dispenses phrases (“limited-edition shoes”; “moving to Berlin”; ”emotional haircut” – to name three), which wittily nod to our times and their tropes. However, as you immerse yourself in the album, it comes to seem that his relationship with technology is as ambiguous as it ever was.
On a musical level, he commands it. Man and machine have had a fractious relationship in music (Bowie, for example, debated those who thought electronic music was necessarily unemotional), and it’s a conversation which LCD Soundsystem – in which “traditional” drums, guitar and bass play alongside their digital counterparts – continue to engage in.
Throughout the album (say, on How Do You Sleep?), the group fire an arsenal of mightily pounding beats and eerie electronic ambiences. Impressive as they are, though, they mainly serve a higher purpose: to draw attention towards the comparative fragility of Murphy’s vocals and his idiosyncratic turns of phrase. Amid the dance-music imperatives and all this technological power, we are irresistibly drawn to look for the human story.
American Dream has outbreaks of demented, feral rock (Emotional Haircut); expanses of meditative synthesiser texture (the title track) and mighty dance-floor workouts (Tonite). What links it all together, though, is this relationship: how human individuality can stand up to what will try and diminish it. When Murphy remixed Bowie, Love Is Lost came accompanied by a stylish video in which human images – hands clapping; a couple kissing – were presented and revealed to be not “real” at all, but digital simulacra, built from code. This album unselfconsciously explores similar themes, without descending down a philosophical wormhole.
Emotional Haircut rants excitedly about old numbers that you can’t delete from your phone and memories you can’t forget. The final track, Black Screen, meanwhile, is a 12-minute meditation on the illusion of connectedness, taking in wedding invitations declined by guests too sick to travel, the reality or otherwise of streamed transmissions from spacecraft and the emotional potency of archived email chains from ex-partners. It’s a engrossing, meditative way to finish a record.
For those who like jokes, meanwhile, there is Tonite. It is a bouncy 1980s club track, not unlike New Order. Here, Murphy’s falsetto vocals fail to conceal their satirical observations. Every pop song, he says, seems to be about tonight – namely, grabbing the moment, living the dream, having a night to remember. Interesting, Murphy deadpans – I never knew the people who made these records thought so much about time.
Why, he wonders, are songs like this so successful? We can’t all be having the same good time. It is at about this point that a voice much like the Losing My Edge narrator steps in. What’s he doing here? “I’m … sent to parody the culture,” he says, “… with my late-era middle-aged ramblings.”
Pre-online life, the song suggests, things were messier – but freer. Now we are imprisoned by the expectation that comes with connectivity: an insistence on reporting a great time, all the time, in which the embarrassing pictures “have all been deleted” in favour of Instagrammed uniformity.
Earlier in the album, I Used To presents the polar-opposite experience – describing a lonely adolescence made bearable by being found by occasional connection with incoming “rock transmissions”. The waning availability of consoling music radio is among the casualties of progress noted elsewhere.
All American Dreams are different, but they all involve personal fulfilment. LCD Soundsystem – simultaneously explosive, dynamic and thoughtful – present an amusing, and humane engagement with these issues of personal politics. This is not an album afraid of technology, merely mindful that we don’t expect it to do our work for us – we need to continue to discover new ways to make meaningful human connections. Like Bowie, pop’s great moderniser, you imagine LCD Soundsystem will never stop looking for them.