“I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another ten years of life”…kinda put your money where your mouth was on that one, didn’t ya?
He said he wasn’t gonna do it, then he did it. Look, I know that writing about LCD’s 2011 retirement in a review of their new album is lazy, not to mention the least original angle one can take. But it is hard to divorce the two; while Murphy wisely kept the reunion low-key, their initial breakup was anything but. LCD Soundsystem’s “final” show was a bona fide event, the sort that might’ve been name dropped on an alternate universe version of “Losing My Edge”. You had Madison Square Garden, you had Aziz and Arcade Fire, you had scalpers selling tickets for $1500, and you had that moment where Murphy, the man who hired a camera crew so he could release his own feature-length film about the show, started getting the sniffles on the final song. People paid a lot of money to be there; this was not a hiatus, nor just some winky-winky breakup. This was the last show ever, the perfect ending to an unlikely success story, announced and sold as such, and if you couldn’t be there, then you could at least get the documentary or the quintuple live album (I gave it a fairly rapturous review here).
So I understand the cynicism; it’s a bit narcissistic to arrange your own funeral and then not actually die. This was sort of the plot to The Royal Tenenbaums, wasn’t it? But, whatever – Murphy’s always seemed like a stand-up guy to me, and I think deep down he might have been one of the only people at MSG who actually believed that was going to be the last LCD Soundsystem show. Who actually retires at their peak? The hell with that. I like this band a lot, I’ve seen ’em three times, and honestly I’m just thankful that for once a band *I* was into actually made it big. Besides, the whole spectacle puts the pressure on Murphy to deliver, and by now we know that he takes such things seriously. I figured the album was going to be good, great even, because frankly it had to be. Even though every remotely successful band is getting back together these days, there’s still nothing lamer than the limp comeback album. Nobody wants to watch the audience tepidly clapping through the first few songs of their set, waiting for the real show to start.
So it’s no surprise that American Dream sounds as if they’d never went away. Despite the 7-year layoff there is really not much difference between this and their last couple albums, outside of the uncharacteristically dull cover art. The band’s default setting is still the slow-burning dance epic, the production and recording still focus mostly on the percussion, and there is still a liberal amount of borrowing from both classic New Wave and LCD’s own past. In this case the key album seems to be Remain in Light – “Other Voices” sounds like an amalgam of its first three tracks, right down to a nearly pitch-perfect aping of Belew’s synthguitar. There’s also a lot of Berlin Bowie/Fripp here, particularly on “Call the Police”. When the references are less obvious it’s still familiar ground; “How Do You Sleep?” sounds like a mashup between “Someone Great” and “Dance Yrself Clean”, and is the album’s best track as a result. It’s also got the wordy, self-referential tune that will likely annoy some people (“Tonite”), just as there are on the other albums (“Pow Pow”, “Watch the Tapes”, “Movement”, etc.).
If any of this bothered you then you probably wouldn’t be listening to LCD Soundsystem in the first place…cue the usual “why listen to this when we’ve already got X, Y, and Z” complaints. I think American Dream gets a lot right. It is the first LCD album that strikes me as having no filler, despite its nearly 70-minute runtime. There are a few slower, more atmospheric tunes, which they don’t attempt all that often (“Oh Baby”, “American Dream”, “Black Screen”), all of which sound pretty good. Maybe having a baby inspired Murphy to write a few lullabies (“Oh Baby” refers to an actual baby…how novel). The only thing the album really lacks is a killer 4-minute single to drive the whole thing home, but whatever. Complaining about that seems to be missing the point, and besides they addressed that whole thing on the last album. They do make one leap of faith at the end, with the 12-minute “Black Screen”, a tribute to David Bowie which packs a pretty big emotional punch. It’s so low-key that you almost wonder when the beat’s gonna drop, but (thankfully?) it never does.
The other reason why “Black Screen” feels so significant is because it’s the one song on here that acknowledges the events of the last several years, being the only one that (obviously) could not have been recorded in say, 2012. When you’re dealing with a band that was such a cultural zeitgeist for several years it’s difficult to not look back and realize how much different things seem to be these days, in a way that you wouldn’t with say, the new Feelies record. In a political sense it’s one thing; despite the title, there’s no mention of Trump here, thank God. The other is how much people’s lives have changed in the interim, which I think does color this album a bit. See, I’ve always thought of LCD Soundsystem as a social sort of band – they were a go-to for parties and bar jukeboxes, and I feel like the true “LCD experience” is bopping up and down in the middle of a crowd of 3,000 other sweaty people. They were one band I never had to twist anyone’s arm to go see. When I think about them I often think of the people I’ve seen them live with.
Ten years ago I was a college student, operating out of a bedroom that couldn’t have been more than 150 square feet. LCD Soundsystem were, along with The Rapture, The Klaxons, and that one band whose name was just three exclamation marks, harbingers of this new dance-punk scene/revival that suddenly got fairly huge almost overnight. I don’t know what set LCD apart back then – their early singles were a cut above the rest, even if their debut LP wasn’t – but by 2007 it was fairly clear. Sound of Silver leaked a few months ahead of release, and of course I decided to grab it (I wound up buying the CD AND an LP, somewhat out of guilt – the premature leak seemed to really bum Murphy out). It’s not often you feel like you’re listening to the Album of the Year in January, but SoS felt like it just might be it. As soon as that multilayered descending vocal line came down on “Get Innocuous!” I knew this was something special – it felt like something Bowie himself might’ve done back in his heyday.
But the big dogs were the two songs stuck in the middle, “Someone Great” and “All My Friends”. By my count this album has five absolute bangers on it (those two plus “Get Innocuous”, “North American Scum”, and “Us v. Them”), but those were the ones that sucked up the majority of the ink spilled about this record, and for good reason. It’s not just that they were excellent tunes – “Someone Great” in particular just sounds awesome on any halfway decent system – but also because they saw Murphy finally dropping the ironic distance and singing from the heart. In fact, listening to the record now, it’s almost jarring how quickly Murphy slips in and out of sincerity. For the irony and sloganeering is splattered all over the rest of the record, from “We are North Americans!” to “The time has come, the time has come, the time has come today!”. Of course that’s alright too – “North American Scum” is just endlessly catchy, and the climax on “Us V. Them” nearly tops everything else on the album. As for the rest…..hmmmm. “Time to Get Away” is a fine li’l pop song after an exhilarating opener. But I’m still not sure about the final third of the album, where the tunes find themselves replaced with an avalanche of words. “Watch the Tapes” is fine, a little too indebted to The Fall, though I guess it’s nice he’s concentrated it all in one spot instead of all over the place like he did on the debut. “Sound of Silver” sounds like mediocre Kraftwerk though, and I’ve never really thought much of “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”…I’m a country boy, maybe I just don’t get it. But I do think its position as permanent set-closer is a little lame; so many showstopping epics in your catalogue, but instead you go with the fake showtune. Maybe that’s what makes it funny.
Regardless, the album would be a classic for “All My Friends” alone. I think “Someone Great” is still my favorite, just because of how great the overall sound design is, and how rare it is to hear someone outdo their idols like that. But “All My Friends” still feels like the most important song LCD could ever write; an overblown paean to (what else?) getting older and trying to get with the plan, featuring one real gutcheck line (“To tell the truth/this could be the last time”). Like all of Murphy’s best work, it reminds you of your favorite music (the spirit of Holger Czukay is strong in this one) while carrying enough of a tune to be memorable all on its own. More than that, it always takes me back to when I first heard it, and more specifically, when I first heard it live. It was my 21st birthday and four of us had gone to catch the show (and then Cornelius the next day) and lose our minds, and lose our minds we did. LCD are awesome live, not just because of how talented and tight they are, but also because their music just works better in a crowd. I remember the 20-minute “Yeah” that closed out the show (before the “New York” encore, of course) just pushing everyone past the point of exhaustion; I would have paid twenty bucks for a bottle of water at that point. But the centerpiece still remained “All My Friends”, not only because it feels like Murphy is addressing the crowd directly (“Where are your friends tonight?”), but also because the majority of the crowd seemed to range between their mid-20s and early-30s, and somewhere in there is an inflection point in your life. Of the three people I went with, one is an ex-roommate who I now see once a year, another I don’t think I ever saw again, and the other I got married to. Well, one out of three ain’t bad. Who knows what would’ve happened had we not made the trip.
As for American Dream, I am sure it will get plenty of AOTY consideration. When I listen to all the albums back-to-back, I feel like this is the best one. I will still play it at parties, though my parties start a little earlier these days and there are kids involved. And if LCD comes around I’ll probably be there, maybe with some of the people I saw them with the other three times. Life is a lot different now, but we’re still the same people. Maybe it was naive to think that Murphy would just go out like that; eventually he’d spot his copy of Before and After Science in the corner and it would all come back again. Hopefully not for the last time.