Two months on from when my much-promised review of This Is Happening never materialised, I now feel ideally poised to reflect on the album’s longer-lasting appeal. Now that the dust has settled on Mr. Murphy’s downcast visage, and my initial, giddy, excitement has died down, what remains is a perpetual slow-burning joy at this lovingly crafted, beautifully expressed object.
Sound of Silver was inevitably going to be a hard act to follow, underpinned as it was by a central trio of songs that expressed universal themes of loss, ageing, and fame over unquestionably exquisite and memorable musical backdrops. On its successor, then, its chief creator adopts a more scattergun lyrical approach. This is not to say that this altered approach is less satisfactory: there is delightful humour in the observation that “Drunk girls wait an hour to pee”, while the stream-of-conscious rant of “Pow Pow” delivers killer punches like “Oh eat it Michael Musto – you’re no Bruce Vilanch!” riveted onto a cast-iron sheet of call-and-response vocals. Where Murphy opens up emotionally, he does so in a more personal style than before; in particular, “All I Want” talks of “com[ing] home from the lonely part… look for the girl who has put up with all of your shit”, and in “I Can Change” Murphy illustrates the evolution of a relationship in an often painterly fashion. It takes a special kind of lyricist to pull of a self-deprecating set of couplets like,
“Love is a curse,
Shoved in a hearse;
Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry –
And this is coming from me.”
and not sound like a jerk.
Musically, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that This Is Happening is an extremely tasteful homage to Murphy’s favoured influences. Not content with aping Bowie in terms of self-reinvention and artistic ambition, Murphy now executes a series of sequels to Bowie-penned classics, and so lead single “Drunk Girls” is the love-child of “Boys Keep Swinging” and The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”; “All I Want” is a seven-minute extension of ” “Heroes” “; “I Can Change” plays out like a super-New Wave edit of “Ashes To Ashes”, and “Somebody’s Calling Me” is essentially Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” by another name.
Initially, I thought Murphy’s slavishness was excessive and unoriginal; on reflection, it’s possible to admire him for his unabashed love of his favourite records, especially when it’s done so affectionately and honestly. Far from serving as proof that the Murphy inkwell has run dry, the anecdotal nature of This Is Happening‘s music and sense of rhythm feels merely familiar and comforting. That he has pieced together many temporally distant influences to form such a cohesive whole confirms his deep-seated belief in the album format. It just works. Even on CD.
This being a DFA production, the album is beautifully mixed and mastered. Hopefully, one of the aspects of Murphy’s production style that will endure is his ability to get every track so crisp and tight and live, only to throw in a rogue variable that might be overly-loud, or jarring, or just perplexing. It’s a trick that has cropped up now and again through the course of his career; here, these moments come thick and fast, right from the off. Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” begins with a deceptively delft pitter-patter of percussion and attenuated mumbling, only to explode two minutes later into a cavernous arena of sound, with some of the most badass bass synth you’ll hear this century. Later on, the EMS Synthi arpeggios in “All I Want” trail effortlessly skywards, losing all sense of decorum as they transform the mood of the piece from euphoric to downright cosmic – it’s a uniquely human moment (thanks, Mr. Gavin Russom!) that sounds terrifically squiggly because it’s not been meddled with. Similar moments abound, from those bottomless sub-bass hits in “Pow Pow” (which sound even better on the Glastonbury live PA), to the nauseatingly atonal, drifting synth stabs in “Somebody’s Calling Me”. This is an album peppered with sounds that initially grate, but are eventually to be cherished.
When journalists interview James Murphy, conversation usually turns to his love of kick-boxing, or of Fleetwood Mac, or of turning down a job writing Seinfeld episodes – in other words, he’s knowingly a hoot. Occasionally though, he lets his guard down further, and discusses the bearing that love and family has on his life and career. Two years ago, he separated from his wife -what he deemed the “biggest change to myself as a person” in an interview with Clash Magazine. At the same time, he also recognised that “I don’t know how that’s affected me yet”, and I think that’s crucial to our interpretation of this final LCD Soundsystem album. On This Is Happening he seems overcome with grief and guilt and fatigue. Right through the record, he’s simultaneously describing his love of making music with his band, and also the problems that come with doing so.
So on “Drunk Girls” he’s wisecracking about studio-derived frat-boy recollections (“Be honest with me, honestly/ Unless it hurts my feelings”), and then on 9-minute headspace disco epic “You Wanted A Hit” he’s bemoaning record label demands (“We won’t be your babies / Till you take us home” is the song’s pretty blood-curdling refrain) and his failure to supply that elusive, titular hit. His anger and resentment barely concealed (though often couched in terms of his relationships with others), it is little wonder that we find Murphy not just resigned to losing his edge, but also his patience. Who distributes his records? EMI, true. But there’s little point arguing with Murphy’s logic, that he’s bored and tired of it all, and that he can write some pretty unforgettable music about it.
It’s extremely difficult to look past the fact that this may be the final album James Murphy commits to tape under the moniker of LCD Soundsystem – after all, this is an album that closes with a song in which Murphy implores a loved one to “take me home”, even if “you might forget the sound of our voice”. Nevertheless, viewed in any social or historical context, This Is Happening deserves its place in a hypothetical pantheon of albums. Sound of Silver may have been easier on the ear, and more universal in its sentiments, but This Is Happening is a gold release of its own kind – withering, torn apart by opposing loves, and still the work of a master songwriter. The world still needs James Murphy – whether as musician, producer, or even novelist.