The songs on LCD Soundsystem’s comeback album tell the story of James Murphy’s own American Dream. And this is the story of how that comeback, including a triumphant return to Alexandra Palace, defined my 2017.
After James Murphy “retired” LCD Soundsystem in 2011, the world became kinder to his gigging record collection. He brought his Despacio vinyl-spinning act to London on only three occasions—I was there for two of them—but the cultural significance of those records blossomed out of all proportion, with tracks like Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” becoming ubiquitous virtue-signals for a kind of attainable godlike genius.
But ahead of the release of LCD Soundsystem’s “comeback” album, american dream, Mr. Murphy began talking up his credentials from far outside the world of danceable music. In a wide-ranging conversation with the podcast host (and fellow New Jersey native) Tom Scharpling, he put his rockist tendencies firmly in the shop window. We all knew Mr. Murphy didn’t ‘get’ electronic music until the time he peaked on ecstasy while listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. But we’d not previously been treated to this much of the nitty-gritty of his former life: buying Smiths records; failing at punk and goth bands; working as an underage bouncer at City Gardens metal shows; and doing the sound for Alex Chilton at Maxwell’s in Hoboken.
The first songs previewed from LCD Soundsystem’s comeback album, american dream, played to this part of Mr. Murphy’s past. “call the police” is globalist art rock that combines the traditions of Bowie, Bono and Bruce. The title-track is a majestic dirge that takes its cues from Disintegration-era Cure. (You don’t believe me? Go listen to “Plainsong” again.)
Then there was “tonite”, the proper lead single (with a music video and everything), and the latest in the subset of conversational LCD Soundsystem songs that dispense with conventional spelling. Like “yr city’s a sucker” before it, but rendered more extreme, the song features Mr. Murphy in full-on talking mode, while spectral harmonies back him up at key moments—although this time, those harmonies are sung by the fluid robots from Random Access Memories.
The song has been nominated for a Grammy, but that’s incidental to its eternal pleasures. The beat is built on a Simmons electronic drum kit’s comical approximation of a snare, which sounds like a whip across bare flesh in a sex-dungeon-nightclub, or perhaps a cartoon sound effect. Sporadically, phrases are treated to real hi-hats, shakers, or cowbells, but in general it’s spare; really spare; spare and essential; the bare essentials. The bassline is squelchy and tactile and played on a suitably antique synthesizer. It alternates between three notes for the entirety of the song. Occasional chords on an old Roland are heard as if from across the hallway in a neighbouring apartment.
Near the end, some other elements threaten to take hold, and then refuse the opportunity. A wailing lead synth line sits hesitantly in the mix (rather than overwhelming the song like on live renditions of “get innocuous!”). Deep stabs on a bass synth are transported in from a Hans Zimmer score to signal SOMETHING IMPORTANT, but then the song peters out in a controlled burst of chicken-scratch guitar, itself refusing to turn the song into a full-on funk workout.
When the band ended for the first time, Mr. Murphy said he wanted to write a novel, “because that’s why you go to school”. In the intervening years, he’s opened a wine bar, shot a short film, scored a bunch of movies, curated a coffee blend, and fruitlessly tried to beautify the sounds made by turnstiles on the New York subway—but no novel has been forthcoming. “tonite” is the reason why. Like David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” before it (a major literary influence on Murphy’s life and art), the song’s lyrics are a series of concentric circles that occasionally, dangerously and thrillingly overlap. Forget the Grammys: this song is so quotable, it could win a Pulitzer. Mr. Murphy plays narrator, interlocutor, flashback-interpreter, and social commentator. He reflects on the dominance of pop music by songs about the impermanence of a great night (“I never realised / These artists thought so much about dying”): songs which play incessantly on nights out. He dismantles their purpose; and he considers his own entanglement with this and other prevalent trends.
The reference to “raffling off limited edition shoes” gets to the heart of Mr. Murphy’s ambivalence: it’s only a few years since he got together with Damon Albarn and André 3000 to write a song for a sneaker company. The “market psychology you’re hipping us to” could be a reference to those algorithm-curated Spotify playlists, for which he should be “frankly thankful”, given the number of listeners they have probably drawn in to the music of LCD Soundsystem. And those “late-era middle-aged ramblings”, in the bizarre walkie-talkie interlude, act as a wizened blast from the past, but also a self-aware put-down of the irrelevance of such intrusions. Broadcasting on “what remains of the airwaves”, Mr. Murphy pulls off the intellectual heist of a lifetime, set to block-rocking beats.
“You’ve lost your internet, and we’ve lost our memory”
“Life is finite, but shit, it feels like forever”
Old people lose their memory for physiological reasons; on the internet you can erase, manipulate, and ensure “embarrassing pictures have now all been deleted”. american dream is, arguably, Mr. Murphy’s attempt to beat time, for the positional songs (“other voices”, “tonite”, “call the police”, “american dream” and “emotional haircut”) are hidden between a bulky mass of autobiographical ones.
The opener, “oh baby”, tells of the wonderment of break-up and new love, over a tribute to Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”. Across smeary, impressionistic lyrics, Mr. Murphy relays chapters of his life hitherto undocumented. A couple of tracks later, on “i used to”, we step further back in time, to the anecdotes recounted on that episode of Mr. Scharpling’s “The Best Show”. “change yr mind”, meanwhile, tells the story of the band getting back together, and the wisdom of paying “a penny for your thoughts / if you could keep them to yourself”, over a cast-off from Bowie’s Lodger.
And then there’s the centrepiece, “how do you sleep?”, which is difficult to parse as anything other than a broadside at Mr. Murphy’s erstwhile saviour and business partner, Tim Goldsworthy. Mr. Goldsworthy, having introduced Mr. Murphy to electronic music and ecstasy, wound up souring the friendship; recrimination, human capital flight and the allegation of embezzlement ensued. “how do you sleep?’ documents this pollutive narrative arc over a histrionic, epic composition that travels from cello-assisted lament to jaw-dropping and bombastic space disco. The song shares a bloodline with “you wanted a hit” from This Is Happening (albeit more bruised than bruising), and Mr. Murphy’s ‘Hello Steve Reich’ remix of David Bowie’s “Love Is Lost”.
Many of the couplets in “how do you sleep?” may make the listener wince. Notably, Mr. Murphy lambasts Mr. Goldsworthy for “standing on the shore getting old / you left me here with the vape clowns”, before issuing the stinging kiss-off, “I must admit: I miss the laughing / But not so much you”. But the song’s ruminative outro, played on mandolin by Al Doyle of Hot Chip, suggests the songwriter emerges from the saga in an elevated position.
american dream contains a bulky mass of autobiographical songs, and these tell the story of Mr. Murphy’s own American Dream: how the grandson of a farm-labourer in Ireland wound up at NYU, turned down the chance to write for Seinfeld (“It’ll never take off,” he said), worked his ass off with half a dozen dead-end hardcore bands, before finally taking a position as a voice of his generation.
“You’re missing a party that you’ll never get over”
“You’re getting older / I promise you this / You’re getting older”
What of those other positional songs? I first heard american dream on a National Express coach, travelling home from the airport after several weeks in Mitteleuropa. (It was midnight on September 1st, and my first action upon re-entering the U.K. had been to download the album on Spotify.) The song that most stuck with me at that black hour was “other voices”, with its Remain In Light-vibe, its talk of conspiracy theories, and the sheer fucking fear of normal life resuming.
Just under a month later, they didn’t play the song during their performance at London’s Alexandra Palace. (I was there the last time they played the venue, seven years prior, when venue- and transport-snarl-ups conspired to make a few thousand fans miss part of the set from Hot Chip, the joint headliners. Mr. Murphy didn’t forget the sorry affair: this time round, he retold the story during his characteristically offbeat stage patter, as a way of explaining and thanking the opening act, Joe Goddard [one of the two principal songwriters of Hot Chip].) But they did play “emotional haircut”, another positional song from american dream. Its punkish energy and vocal phrasing stretch way back into the LCD Soundsystem back-catalogue: to their cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire”, and to “on repeat” from their self-titled debut.
As with “emotional haircut”, so for the rest of the set. They’ve always been a band about ageing, now more than ever, but heir stage presence belies this. They’re tighter, tougher, and more vital than ever. The sequencing is masterful, and not just in the perennial segues between “you wanted a hit”, “tribulations”, “movement”, “yeah!” and “someone great” (a quintet that best showcases the science, industry and artistry of resident synth-whizz Gavin Rayna Russom). The set opener “get innocuous!” comes across like the Third Revelation to fans starved of this era-defining band for seven years, before descending into an orgiastic tropical frenzy. And yes, “tonite” hits even harder, bolting out of the stable door like an incomprehensibly excited, feral colt.
“whatever fits in your pockets / you’ll get your due”
In 2016, waiting for an ultimately dead-end date outside a bar in Shoreditch, I looked up and saw him standing next to me. I successfully fought the urge to follow him to whichever hoary watering hole he was headed for.
The passage of time has been disproportionately generous to the final two songs the band played at Alexandra Palace. Yes, “dance yrself clean” and “all my friends” are two of their greatest songs. But who’d have thought they’d become unifying anthems for doomed youth? The floor of the storied concert hall became a roiling, boiling ocean of humanity and ideals and surprisingly mainstream enjoyment. Amidst the slickly synchronised lighting, I was reminded of lyrics from a song played earlier in the set, “home”. “This is the trick: forget a terrible year… Look around you, you’re surrounded, it won’t get any better”. Should we have had this much fun, fiddling while Rome burned?
I saw him standing next to me, and knew I didn’t need to follow him. Never meet your heroes: We can all be at one with them, hearing their records and dancing the planet away at their epiphanic shows.
LCD Soundsystem played at Alexandra Palace, London, 22/09/17:
- get innocuous!
- i can change
- call the police
- i used to
- you wanted a hit
- someone great
- american dream
- [ENCORE] losing my edge
- emotional haircut
- dance yrself clean
- all my friends