LCD Soundsystem Contemplate the American Dream
LCD Soundsystem’s plan to “go out on top” and walk away from the music game at their peak back in 2011 got derailed a few short years later when they returned to hit the festival circuit in 2016. Bandleader James Murphy was sensitive to accusations of cash grabbery and at the outset of their second chapter sent out a detailed musing on the ins and outs of break ups and reunions. The gist of the missive was that Murphy had a trove of songs bouncing around his skull and rather than record them and chuck them in a vault, he figured he might as well get back together with his friends and release them as proper LCD Soundsystem music. And so, by and large, the world of hipsterdom rejoiced that the dance punk overlords had reconvened to make getting your ironic groove on fashionable again. But as 2016 wore on and no new songs surfaced in LCD’s setlists, those same arbiters of taste began to wonder if the comeback had really been nothing more than a Coachella sized payday for Murphy and Co. Had the promise of fresh music been nothing more than a smokescreen? Fast forward to 2017 and LCD Soundsystem have finally delivered on that promise with the new album American Dream.
Motivations for the aside, it can be stated without question that LCD Soundsystem has not tarnished its legacy in any respect with this new album and in fact, have revealed a new facet of artistry that had only been seen in fleeting glimpses the first time around. More specifically, the songs throughout American Dream are more mature and serious than their previous output. It’s clear that Murphy has done quite a bit of soul searching in his time away and that is reflected in many of the songs here concerning themselves with getting older and trying to find some deeper meaning in the hectic maelstrom of modern life.
While a more introspective LCD Soundsystem is an interesting development from a band that began as primarily a dance music outfit, the other side of the coin is that this album is a far more somber affair than what was expected. There’s no goofy “Drunk Girls” type joke track among these songs, nor are there many one liners like “To those of you who still think we’re from England, we’re not”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Murphy is pushing 50 after all, so a batch of songs that are a little less juvenile isn’t that big of a shocker. But it does also mean that the fun factor has been dialed back to a fairly large extent. Not only that, but the self referential nature of LCD seems to have mostly disappeared too. LCD Soundsystem has always not just been for music nerds, but it’s just as much music about being a music nerd too. However, the song “Tonite” is the only real time that Murphy breaks the fourth wall, complete with sample of himself referring to his “late era, middle-aged ramblings”. That track is also one of only a couple that Murphy really taps into the classic LCD formula of putting a rant over the top of a beat and seeing where it goes. It’s actually still a pretty heavy song with proclamations like “you’re getting older/ I promise you this” and “the future’s a nightmare”, but musically it’s one of the more buoyant and danceable tracks with percolating synth bass and a classic LCD cowbell laced beat.
There are some other high energy outings to be had, namely the punkish blast of “Emotional Haircut” as well as the driving “Other Voices”, which is the other track that features a stream of conscious diatribe as the lyrical content. The rubbery bass and guitar skronk of the latter has Brian Eno written all over it, although music geeks of lesser stature may attribute the influence to Eno ambassadors Talking Heads and David Byrne. “Other Voices” is also a rare occasion for keyboardist Nancy Whang to take over the lead vocal and she contributes a well placed icy mini-ramble about friends and enemies and “sounding like the 90s”. We also get another Eno tribute in the form of “Change Yr. Mind” which bears more than a passing resemblance to the lead track off of Before and After Science, “No One Receiving“. But hey, if you are going to update a song for the 21st Century, there are few better choices than the legendary Eno and “Change Yr. Mind” is accordingly one of the album’s better constructed tracks.
The other highlight in terms of bringing some verve to the table is the single “Call the Police“, which is reminiscent of the anthemic “All My Friends“. It doesn’t have quite the emotional wallop of that track, but it does comes close and when Murphy begins shouting the song title at the climax, it’s the most effective catharsis of the entire album. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of satisfying peaks for the remainder of the tracks. Songs like the title cut mostly just plod along without any real release, as does the album opener “Oh Baby”. These are well crafted tunes to be sure, but they lack a little something extra to push them over the edge into something viscerally thrilling. Similarly “How Do You Sleep?” starts with an abstract no wave type intro and just as it seems to really be building steam, it fizzles into an aimless coda and also seems to recycle some of the same synth flourishes as “Someone Great” from 2007’s Sound of Sliver. These aren’t bad tracks by any means, but they just don’t offer much in the way of a musical payoff.
Then there’s the album closer “Black Screen“, which is probably the most subdued track of the album and also the longest, stretching out past the 12 minute mark. Over a bed ’80s style synths Murphy croons a tale of a lost connection with an old friend, or perhaps lover, and it makes for one of the most honest and intimate moments of American Dream. In an album that’s largely about dealing with aging and finding your options increasingly limited, this is the track that ends up being the most raw and heart wrenching. You can really feel the regret and honestly just sorrow seeping through the music, which is territory that’s been alluded to on tracks like “All My Friends” and “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down“. But when stripped of any bombast or sonic clutter as it is here, it cuts even deeper. The track then closes with a piano driven instrumental outro that’s simply gorgeous. If LCD Soundsystem 2.0 is going to be a more serious and downright melancholy affair, “Black Screen” could be the blueprint for taking this new direction to an entirely different place. While that won’t be a dance party by any definition, it could lead to some intriguing new avenues in the future. Welcome back LCD Soundsystem, you have been missed.