LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening
Murphy’s getting a little old for this scene, and it’s getting a little old for him, but empathy trumps envy when the bridge turns suddenly sweet: “I believe in waking up together…I believe in making eyes across the room.”
It’s entirely fitting that LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy supplied the score to Noah Baumbach’s Zoloft-laced rom-com Greenberg earlier this year. The film’s namesake and protagonist is a sour, fortyish ex-musician using his last few shards of hipster cred and cynicism as shields against a past dotted with blown record deals and poorly-tended relationships. Murphy, also 40, knows – almost was – this foot-shooter: This, after all, is a man who managed to ignore an offer to join the writing staff of Seinfeld in his early 20s. Much of “Losing My Edge,” the 2002 track that brought the art-rocker (Speedking) turned soundman (Six Finger Sattelite) turned West Village party DJ to unexpected prominence, could be drawn from Roger Greenberg’s self-talk: “I’m losing my edge to the kids…But have you seen my records?”
The figure Murphy portrays in his songs, and in some interviews, is exactly the guy who doesn’t manage to transcend his scene, but the story has turned out differently in real life. Against long odds, both LCD Soundystem and (with Tim Goldsworthy) the associated label/production entry DFA (Death From Above) have gone from success to success, with 2006’s Sound of Silver featuring on many critics’ end-of-the-year and even end-of-the-decade lists while generating actual chart action in the U.K. (The U.S. mainstream, for better or worse, still prefers its electronic pop fronted by divas rather than meaty, stubbly Irish-Americans.)
Murphy can sometimes seem a theoretician of cool who just happens to issue his latest findings on vinyl and plastic, and given that the LCD/DFA brand is his own best experimental subject, it’s inevitable that the just-released This Is Happening makes reference to the act’s fortunes and modest celebrity. “I’ve been filmed being ridiculous – oh, eat it Michael Musto!” runs an insiderish aside in “Pow Pow,” the album’s closest approximation to the beats-plus-soliloquy format of “Losing My Edge.” The bulk of the track, an eventful eight minutes of prefab timbale loops and Laser Tag effects against an implacable 808 pattern – thanks, liner notes! – is a fairly abstract paean to ambivalence in all its guises, capped by a call-and-response on the unlikely phrase “There’s advantages to both!”
“You Wanted A Hit” covers adjacent territory, ringing changes on the hoary “we don’t hear a single” conflict between artiste and “suit”: “You wanted it lush, but honestly you must hush…You wanted a hit? Well that’s not what we do.” Such posturing is probably not to be taken at face value, especially as DFA’s relationship with Virgin/EMI is said to be a relatively happy one. In fact, it’s not entirely clear whether the song’s primary addressee is the label, the fans, or even other artists. (A fruitless stab at collaborating with Britney Spears a few years back might be in the mix.) Appropriately enough, the music combines Murphy’s most and least commercial tendencies, opening with a three-minute crossfade between a near-parody of a half-finished ambient house cut and a sleek 4/4 groove that could have appeared on any Cars album. (The last-mentioned bit feels radio-ready to me, but then, I’m 40 too.)
For the most part, though, This Is Happening deals with raised expectations by ignoring them. There’s no radical rethink of Murphy’s formulae here – and he does have more than one – just a more finely-tuned apportioning of their two key elements: alt-rock “expressiveness” and club-music “facelessness.” Despite the expected complement of nauseous synth settings and filter-and-fader trickery, the album as a whole favors the former: For sheer dancefloor functionality, only “Pow Pow” is likely to match LCD’s last between-album 12”, a cover of Suicide’s “Bye Bye Bayou.” “Drunk Girls” catches Murphy in his most referential and reverential rockist mode, with both the two-note shouted hook and the chord change on which its variant lands (“Drunk boys!”) hailing from The Velvets’ tweaker anthem “White Light/White Heat.” This is very meta. What could be cooler than a thinly-disguised bite of something that you and your audience both know (or should), that has been apotheosized as cool for so long that it isn’t cool anymore, except when it is? The song’s choice as lead single may have less to do with the music than with its down-with-the-kids verbal atmosphere, with the lines between the hooks flying by like so many Tumblr posts: “Drunk boys, keeping pace with the pedophiles…Drunk girls wait an hour to pee.” Murphy’s getting a little old for this scene, and it’s getting a little old for him, but empathy trumps envy when the bridge turns suddenly sweet: “I believe in waking up together…I believe in making eyes across the room.”
The synthesis Murphy aims for here and elsewhere is guided by the concerns he described to a Pitchfork scribe back in 2007: “Gestures of rock in the vocals, the rock gesture in the production, the manipulation of sound, sound being the manipulator in terms of cool versus sound being a manipulator in terms of the body.” He doesn’t hit the target every time. Another rock-oriented track, “All I Want,” has promising ingredients – a thick, Malkmus-via-Ronson guitar lead, an aleatory keyboard solo – but suspends them in a wash of echo at odds with the appealingly transparent mixes on most of the album, while “Somebody’s Calling Me,” modeled on the recently rediscovered “minimal wave” subgenre of European new wave, belongs, like the debut album’s Fall-ventriloquizing “Movement,” to his thankfully small category of one-influence experiments.
Despite the LCD’s heft as a singles act and DFA’s traffic with remix culture, Murphy remains, generationally and even temperamentally, a believer in the album form – not as pop music’s “highest” form, but as one of several, each with their own potentials and constraints – and, in context, even the half-baked tracks here serve the honorable function of cleansing the palate for the more satisfying courses. I’m not about to predict whether This Is Happening will match the already-iconic Sound of Silver for staying power – the end of this decade is too far away for that – but one suspects that Murphy himself doubts it. He’s already intimated that this album will be the last under the LCD Soundsystem moniker (the Greenberg soundtrack, done under his own name, is a step in that direction), and has periodically suggested to journalists that he’s bracing himself for a backlash. Whether that thought is just toxic residue from the obscurationist microculture that shaped Murphy’s sensibility, or another self-canceling joke at the expense of that very attitude, I have news: If he’s looking for backlash, he’ll have to make far worse records than this one.