Once upon a time, James Murphy was an obsessed teenager, just like myself and anyone I would imagine reading this blog was. Who knows exactly which records he obsessed over but you could probably guess – Remain in Light, White Light/White Heat, New Order’s Substance, everything Brian Eno, David Bowie’s Low and Station to Station, and probably even Close to the Edge. Most likely he was the ‘music guy’ in his circle of friends, the one who was excitedly bringing over vinyls every week in the hopes that he’d be able to get someone to appreciate The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall like he did. He was perhaps born a bit too late to really be a part of that golden era, but it did allow him the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see how these albums held up, and what really wound up happening to these guys. You can imagine him thinking one day he would be a part of a band, one that would do things the right way. Perhaps realizing that a band’s peak tended to be something like three or four albums over five or six years, he might have imagined a band that was all that; one that came in with a bang and left ’em wanting more.
This is all speculative of course, but I do get this feeling with LCD Soundsystem. Right out of the gate, they (or more accurately, he) was a curious act; Murphy spent half his life playing in bands, running a label, DJing, and engineering records, explaining why the band’s first single, “Losing My Edge”, seemed so well-made compared to the early singles of similar groups. Murphy sounded like a grizzled vet from the get-go; though the first single came in 2002, the first album came three years later, when he was nearly 35. All the while he was very self-aware about what he was doing and how he’d be perceived. He wanted a group that was more fun than serious, because that’s what makes people dance, but also had that navel-gazing side that would captivate the next group of teenagers bringing their iPods to their friends’ houses. He wanted to make albums just like his heroes did, taking advantage of the length of a CD but taking care not to abuse it. Stuff that tried hard, because people were going to pay for these albums, but not too hard, lest you risk being labeled pretentious or stiff. He wanted the tunes to embody all the things he loved in music – the complex funkiness of Talking Heads, the fluid, breathing 12″ mixes of New Order, and the lackadaisical but intense vocals of The Fall (among a dozen other things), and to find a way to do it so well that simply calling him a “copycat” would be a lazy criticism. And he wanted to be the kind of frontman who aware of the times, who didn’t really mind if people downloaded his albums (so long as you do it after they’re actually released), but wouldn’t be afraid to tell the audience to just live in the moment and put down their fucking cell phones once in a while.
LCD Soundsystem were all these things, and they came along at a time when this kind of sound was making waves (no small part thanks to Murphy’s DFA label). In 2005, most of their fans were playing spot-the-reference on “Losing My Edge” (“I know all these bands!”, and by extension, being exactly the sort of person the tune was poking fun at); by 2008, the song was educating many that Scott Walker was the name of a musician too. I’ve seen them three times, and every time the crowd got bigger and more diverse, even though they didn’t have any songs that were particularly famous; “Drunk Girls” was supposed to be the big, radio-friendly single off This Is Happening, but the one I was always hearing in the wild was the nearly 10-minute “Dance Yrself Clean”. As for the record itself, you can tell that Murphy slaved over the thing, renting a house for the express purpose of making the album, admitting in several interviews that it was stressing him out more than anything he’d ever worked on. It was reviewed well, but a lot of people perceived it as Sound of Silver Vol. II, and deep down I think Murphy knew that it kinda was. Not a bad thing, but the writing was on the wall, and on top of that you got the impression that the now 40 year-old Murphy was getting sick of being famous.
And so came the final show, one last blowout at Madison Square Garden, a three and a half hour extravaganza to be the end-all-be-all of the band formerly known as LCD Soundsystem. Three and a half, because Murphy’s damn well earned it; since it was the final show, they would have to play pretty much everything, and since it was the last time, they weren’t gonna skimp. Not that they do every single song they’ve recorded, but nothing gets overlooked. They do the best album tracks, they do the obscure album tracks (even ones that were dropped from their set long ago), they do the singles, they do a big chunk of 45:33 (recorded for Nike, it’s a piece that lasts exactly that), they do the Nilsson cover, they do some B-sides, they do “Bye Bye Bayou”, that super-obscure Alan Vega song (for the first and last time), they even unexpectedly toss in a minute of “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes, because Murphy really was that cool all along. Nobody goes home disappointed. And everyone important to them would be there, including their musician friends (Arcade Fire guests on “North American Scum”) their celebrity friends (Aziz Ansari, Donald Glover, Spike Jonze, Reggie Watts), and most importantly their families. And there was to be a documentary, because this was an event, something that was never going to happen again, so better make sure we get it all.
So how good were the band on that April night? Does it matter? To the crowd it was more a party than a concert; Murphy could’ve fallen over the drumkit to rapturous applause. Yes, the band were on fire, sounding as tight and intense as they had the three times I saw them. No, they weren’t particularly inspired this night, but that’s only because they’re always this great; they played “Yeah” every night like it was the last song they’d ever perform. But this time it really is, and there’s a twinge of (inaudible) sadness over every tune; it’s the last “All My Friends”, the last “Daft Punk”, the last “Losing My Edge”.
There’s something really great to be said about all this, because it’s about as rare to see a band split up at a peak of success and creativity like this as it is to see a pro athlete retire after one of their best seasons. There’s only one John Elway, but a lot of Brett Favres. LCD had just released an album packed with killer material and their live shows were awesome, so why not go on? I mean, there must’ve been thousands of fans out there wondering “why now?” when the band clearly had plenty in the tank, and it’s that doubt which really fuels the whole thing. Certainly the idea is to say goodbye, but it’s a long, prolonged farewell, and the audience is only set free after they’re to the point where they couldn’t possibly mosh to one more song (I have never in my life been thirstier than I have the moment after an LCD show was over). It’s tough to imagine their audience getting bigger than it was, nor the cynicism that would result once the band released their 5th album (or whatever) in 2016; no, Murphy respected himself and his audience too much to ride the wave until it crested, and you only get so many songs like “All My Friends” in a lifetime. I guess once his band started getting called the “voice of a generation” he figured he wouldn’t want to continue unless he could give 100%, and giving 100% was going to take over his entire life if he let it.
So we have this to remember it by – a 5 LP set, with discs going from Side A to Side J (as to why there is no CD: “It’s not 1997”), functioning as either a (slightly) abridged version of the band’s discography, or the nine most eventful years of Murphy’s life condensed into a 12-inch box. It’s incredibly long and difficult to finish in one sitting, but that’s the sort of band they were. You can imagine the teenage James Murphy making mixtapes of his favorite bands and struggling because he couldn’t fit everything in; every cut has to be the extended version because that’s the better one, and you can’t cut out any of the obscurities because that’s what makes the tapes worth making. That’s the sprit that’s remained in him all this time, and you have to imagine it finally being satisfied; that he even had 5 LPs worth of material that he felt was worthy, and even more, that he was able to do it all the right way.