Much as I can promise that, in the future, I’ll try not to get an idea for a post solely by riffing off something Michael writes, having read his spot-on tribute to LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, I really couldn’t help but pen something concerning Mr. Murphy, for whom my admiration is fairly unreserved. I could wax lyrical about him for hours, but I won’t. Mainly because I need to catch up on sleep, but also because it would be sycophantic and dull.
Instead, then, I feel it’s worth arguing that, in order to truly appreciate the brilliance of “All My Friends”, one has to place it in the context of the album, Sound of Silver, and take it from there.
First, a little history. Murphy’s eponymous debut, LCD Soundsystem, was a witty, musically enjoyable romp through dance punk, and I don’t think the progression heard on its follow-up was necessarily expected. This first album was perfect at capturing a scene in its infancy, and enlarging it in order to poke holes into it, whilst still showing off a talent for eye-catching hooks, but it certainly wasn’t a wholly engrossing emotional experience; far less the kind of album that reduced me to tears (yes, just as with certain films, there really are albums that have this effect on me). On the contrary, Sound of Silver remains one of the most emotionally mature releases I have come across in recent memory, without compromising on musical interest or invention. If anything, it’s far less derivative than its predecessor, bearing much more of a debt to the experimentation and aesthetics of Bowie and Eno than the somewhat lairy post-punk of Mark E. Smith. The opener, “Get Innocuous”, immediately clarifies the step up between the two albums: within the first minute, the instantly recognisable beat of a TR-808 gives way to Murphy’s live drumming, before layers of synths, piano and icily detached vocals give a strange emotional charge that, till that moment, is pretty much entirely lacking in his œuvre. It’s a wonderful song that builds and builds, swallowing the listener up in its lyrical themes and sonic artistry.
From thereon in, the album explores a range of genres and subjects without ever letting up, but, for me, the heart of the album lies in the trio of songs that kicks off with “Someone Great”, carries on with “All My Friends”, and culminates in “Us V Them”. It is in this triumvirate that Murphy gets to the bottom of his role as an artist; his reasons for being firmly in the game of making intelligent dance music (but not IDM) at a relatively advanced stage of his life; what spurs him on and makes him want to sing about real things, beyond the humorous but ultimately narrow-minded hipster anecdotes that pepper the debut record.
The first aspect of Murphy’s progression through life depicted in the trio is loss, detailed with poignancy and subtlety in “Someone Great”.
I wake up and the phone is ringing,
Surprised, as it’s early.
And that should be the perfect warning,
That something’s a problem.
Far from dealing in heavy-handed language and imagery, Murphy merely hints at impending tragedy, without ever appealing to melodrama or exploiting our emotions. His observations in the song are concerned with the minutiæ of dealing with loss – “The coffee isn’t even bitter,” he remarks, providing an elision of the quotidian and the exceptional, reminding us that, regardless of the trauma involved, normality continues apace. The repeated suggestion that “We’re safe, for the moment” is heart-wrenching in its subtext: on the one hand he is celebrating the life of someone who has passed on; on the other, he is objectively comprehending and processing the realisation that his days too are numbered, and that in creation, we are inherently poised towards destruction.
The twinkling, eery outro of “Someone Great”, with its collision of glockenspiel and detuned synth, provides the perfect segue into the epic contemplation on ageing that is “All My Friends”, which emerges, slowly, patiently, from a Reich-like piano figure; a single chord whose rhythm suggests an unstoppable force that continues beneath everything for the duration of the track – in effect, it represents our uncontrollable journey towards old age, whilst the lyrics take a typically dry, observationally succinct approach to the problems of this passing of time.
We set controls for the heart of the sun:
One of the ways that we show our age.
Again, Murphy never resorts to bludgeoning the message home. Instead, as the song unfurls around a scratchy guitar motif, his lyrics become gradually more impassioned, as he laments the bad decisions that have caused his life to come undone:
It comes apart,
The way it does in bad films.
Except in part,
When the moral kicks in.
Using the imagery of cars, films and journeys, he deftly examines his own failings, eventually repeating the question “Where are your friends tonight?”, before confessing “If I could see all my friends tonight” as the guitar reaches its own emotional peak, and the piano playing becomes more frenzied and rushed. The resolution at the end of the song suggests some closure, but it seems hollow when prefaced by the admissions of failure and wrongdoing.
In the aftermath of this dual rumination on mortality and maturity, Murphy at last takes on the final chapter in the defining passages of life – fame. “Us V Them”, the longest of the three, and also the most musically sparse and minimal, sees a partial return to the dance-punk sound that characterises LCD Soundsystem, dominated by muted guitar scratches and More Cowbell. In a successful attempt to lighten the tone, Murphy himself is heard whispering “Bells” before the requisite cowbell is ushered in. The remainder of the lyrics expands upon the spare accompaniment with an at-times scathing account of the Big Life.
And so all the good people wanna rescue,
All the small people wanna talk to you.
All the clever people wanna tell you,
All the little people wanna dance, it’s true.
In this depiction, everyone’s a villain, and everyone’s trying to get the better of him, leading to the inevitable cry of segregation in “So it’s us, and them, over and over again.” Of the three, this is the least resolved, perhaps a reminder of the fact that Murphy has made it, to an extent, in the world, and this is now the true (if a little exaggerated) format of his life – continual sparring and sniping – about which he can do nothing.
The remainder of the album is, unsurprisingly, superb, incorporating electronic music, punk and, finally, a Lou Reed-style waltz on the touching closer, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. Nothing, however, compares to this emotional heart of the album, which examines the making of James Murphy in an eloquent, touching and interesting manner, without ever resorting to mawkish sentimentality or emotional bluntness. It is to his great credit that, almost two years down the line, this trio of meditations on loss, ageing and fame, continues to inspires me after every listen. In an age of melodramatic emotional statements in music, set against a rival faction of emotionally bereft music, it’s incredibly endearing to find such a genuinely heartfelt set of songs that never patronises, but instead weaves its meaning through measured use of metaphor and allusion. What a wonderful album. What a wonderful artist.