Death is Not the End: David Foster Wallace, James Murphy, and the New Sincerity

James Murphy

On April 2, dance-pop juggernaut LCD Soundsystem will play its final show at Madison Square Garden before its frontman James Murphy voluntarily dissolves the band. And this month, Little, Brown will publish The Pale King, the novel that David Foster Wallace was working on when he committed suicide in 2008. In my mind, at least, these concurrent events—a book and a concert, created by two men who never met, one of them dead—are an appropriate coincidence, and here’s why.

LCD Soundsystem’s music and Wallace’s books have always resided near each other in a rarefied corner of my artistic universe I reserve for nearly flawless art. It’s a special place we all have for our absolute favorite music, books, and films that we are not just enthusiastic about, but whose secular beauty offers something approaching salvation, inspiration, refuge from mediocrity and grief and shitty days at the office. This is the art that helps us feel a little less alone, as both Murphy and Wallace are on record hoping their works would help people feel. I am sorry to lose Wallace and LCD Soundsystem, not just for the sheer quality of their work, but for their approach to that work, which involved some very conscious steps away from our culture’s pervasive irony and toward a new, refreshing sincerity.

Wallace and Murphy’s respective admirers form a Venn diagram whose overlap, I suspect, forms a near-circle. Sure, both appeal to superficially similar demographics: middle or upper-middle class, highly educated urbanites. But I have a hunch the kindred qualities run deeper: Wallace/ Murphy fans might also be those among us with a propensity toward depression; who maybe didn’t achieve everything they hoped they would by the age of 25/30/45/50; who remain culturally progressive but increasingly pessimistic about the direction in which society’s headed; who don’t always go in for difficult metafiction or archly sincere dance music but were drawn almost magnetically to Infinite Jest and Sound of Silver because they grew up wearing irony like a protective cloak until it started to chafe and so traded it for realer talismans like the aforementioned book and album.

Both men are similar not only as artists, both as people. Both were/ are adorably unfashionable—consider Wallace’s chewing tobacco, long hair, and iconic bandana, or Murphy’s pudginess, martial-arts shoes, and self-administered haircuts. Murphy’s cool uncoolness is even more admirable and unlikely for his status in a genre whose youthful dancers and DJs, designer drugs, and velvet-rope exclusivity contrast sharply with the dorky, scruffy, whiskey-in-a-plastic bottle everyman making some of the best music of the past decade. Meanwhile, Wallace took the self-conscious hermit-author schtick to an extreme just short of Salinger, horribly nervous at the rare literary events he attended, and communicating almost exclusively by letters and postcards rather than email.

They were both neurotic, too, falling prey to the sort of paranoid comparisons we all make in our less confident moments, sizing up the competition and enumerating their accomplishments versus ours. From the blog post about Wallace that Murphy wrote after the author’s death: “Wallace was only 8 years older than me, and I figured, even if I got a running start RIGHT FUCKING NOW I wouldn’t get award-winning-1000+page-novel published in that time.” Which only confirms that no matter how successful you are by other generally objective standards, you will always be glancing over at the guy your age or younger—or in the words of LCD Soundsystem’s earliest song, “Losing My Edge”:  “The kids are coming up from behind.”

“Losing My Edge” is a satirical manifesto about an aging, worried hipster, but it doubles as an airing of Murphy’s neuroses about, well, being an aging hipster. He knows he shouldn’t worry about remaining cool in the eyes of the younger generation’s tastemakers, but he can’t help it. So he rattles off the names of several “cool” artists that serve as cultural and artistic reference points. “This is what you do when you know things,” he told Terri Gross in his Fresh Air interview last year. “Knowing things, knowledge, or like your attachment to them or your self-association with other bands or with books or whatever is usually like this, often this weird amulet that protects you. … Look at my library. Listen to this. Like, I’m going to list all the books I’ve read, and now you know I’m a serious person. And so it was just supposed to be like this amulet swinging around me to protect me from being seen as anything that I didn’t want to be seen as.”

That’s what we catch ourselves doing with music, especially, but also literature and film and pretty much every other kind of art: in public we wield the cool, highly regarded art’s amulet, name-dropping it at parties. Meanwhile, we hide the uncool, mainstream, guilty-pleasure art in our bedrooms to enjoy in private. Maybe we do this more when we’re younger, and then most of us grow out of it. Maybe.

Murphy spent his career trying to grow out of it. He described this process in an interview with Time Out Chicago:

“I like stuff from my childhood, either early OMD or Bronski Beat or the Smiths, which was the kind of music you loved in your room, but the minute someone else walked in who didn’t like that kind of music, you suddenly realized how fey and absurd it was. You’re like, This is so great! Oh, my brother’s here—this is the faggiest music I’ve ever heard.”

Murphy spent the first part of his music career with his brother perpetually in the room, moving within indie-rock circles where coolness was king. But he told Gross that he made the switch to dance music for its transparency: A DJ or dance-music artist knows whether he or she is succeeding purely based on whether people are dancing. And it is difficult to dance ironically. So with LCD Soundsystem, Murphy stopped caring whether his brother and the rest of the cool kids were in the room. Especially on the second and third albums, he embraced naked sincerity, crooning, synth balladry, and lyrical directness. “Someone Great” was about missing a dead person. “All My Friends” is about missing all your friends. “Sound of Silver” is about the unguarded emotional experience of our teen years that becomes embarrassing only in retrospect, but is so crucial to our adolescent development.

On the final LCD record, This is Happening, Murphy’s best songs are again his most sincere. “I Can Change” is the album’s emotional nucleus, a love ballad built from nothing but an analog drum machine, synths, and Murphy’s New Romantic baritone mixed way to the front, promising to do whatever it takes to keep his lover from leaving—a project whose futility makes the song’s titular plea so poignant. “I really like synthy, heartfelt, pop love songs,” Murphy said of “I Can Change,” in an interview with NME. “There’s something kind of naive and earnest about them. I haven’t really let myself do that in this band much. I was like, What’s the worst that’s gonna happen? People will think I’m a simp, or an idiot? Fine.”

Part of LCD’s appeal derived from what it wasn’t. So much of popular music still relies on artifice and irony and tight young bodies grinding and smirking, that when a schlubby dude staring down middle age began flailing around and singing about growing older by referencing Pink Floyd, a lot of people were relieved. I know I was.

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