LCD Soundsystem, ‘American Dream': Album Review
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James Murphy‘s artistic mind is also an enterprising one—that or duplicitous and opportunistic, depending on one’s view.
Deciding to retire LCD Soundsystem after a mere three studio albums, the breakup announcement that accompanied 2010’s This Is Happening propelled the band’s unexpected adieu to the glory of a sold-out Madison Square Garden finale. Survived by 2012’s award-winning Shut Up and Play the Hits feature film along with the five-LP live recording, 2014’s The Long Goodbye, fans could find solace in the dearly departed’s trail of parting gifts. A “long goodbye,” indeed.
So the verdict on american dream, Murphy’s first album since reviving LCD Soundsystem, then, was thought to have been decided before it had even reached our ears. With posthumous LCD-related news and music having never fully receded from our news feeds in the few intervening years between retirement and post-retirement, one couldn’t help but feel swindled watching the group collect the jackpot of top-billed festival slots upon re-arrival. Hardly allowing us the time and space to ceremonially grieve, Murphy impatiently barged back into our lives while we were busy trying to mourn his loss.
But if the stew of musical and emotional themes present on american dream are any indication, it suggests less a cynical cash-raking exercise and more a reaffirmation about James Murphy that we had already known from his music in the first place: that the reckoning with aging, and the existential contemplations that accompany it, steer him toward impulse, regret and then, remedially, music creation. And in typical form, the former Brooklyn DJ uses american dream as an opportunity to spin this vicious cycle like a crate of records.
From the record’s beginning, the thick synth pulses that strike the brittle, metronomic tick-tick-ticks on opening track “oh baby” recall Suicide‘s anomalously melodic masterpiece, “Dream Baby Dream”; while the title track traces its genealogy to their late-career “Surrender.” PiL‘s spirit is awoken on “how do you sleep?” by Murphy’s Yajna-like bellowing over tribal tom palpitations. The discordant guitar stabs perforating “change yr mind,” it’s been pointed out, evoke a Berlin Trilogy-era Brian Eno and Robert Fripp concoction; while the song as a whole, eerie and crookedly rhythmic, exists somewhere between David Bowie‘s Lodger and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). And that’s far from the only instance on the record where Bowie haunts Murphy’s american dream, which is sensible, given Bowie’s role in Murphy’s decision to reunite the group.
And despite bearing a title that promises tranquility, the real challenge is identifying a moment across the album’s near-70 minutes at which Murphy’s dream isn’t interrupted by night terrors. The lyrical themes present on LCD Soundsystem’s triumphant return suggest neither triumph nor restoration, but rather a continued attempt to wrestle with self-perception, the stubborn pace of time and the threat of obsolescence posed by an encroaching alien generation. The rueful, over-the-hill hipster narrating “tonite” here is the same embittered protagonist from “Losing My Edge,” 2005’s debut LCD Soundsystem single, who bargained for relevance against armies of “art-school Brooklynites in little jackets” grifting “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s.” And it is these little-jacket-clad juveniles, mind you, who are still LCD’s most committed patrons—cashing him in while phasing him out.
In his recent book The Art of Being Free, author James Poulos interprets French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s characterization of Americans’ inherent craziness as a dual “lively-to-frenetic state of outwardness on one end and a restful-to-paralytic state of inwardness at the other.” And for a generation strained by the conflicting pulls of “FoMO” guilt and “Netflix and chill” safety, it’s not puzzling that the anxieties and neuroses of James Murphy, a grey-stubbled white dude reclining into middle age, manage to reverberate in key with youth culture’s current tenants.
“tonite,” in particular, sees a vexed Murphy resisting the galleries of voices that lecture, “You’re missing a party that you’ll never get over” and spiral one into anxiety over youth supernaturally vanishing. But don’t get too comfortable! On the other hand, Murphy takes to “i used to” to urge that the dictatorial forward thrust of time “won’t be messed with.” So act now. We’re locked into this eternal paradox that can make one sick with regret. The best you can do, Murphy advises, is “make your way to the toilet / these morning ablutions are all part of the dance.”
Even by these standards, american dream represents a decidedly somber turn for LCD Soundsystem—think their [Lou Reed‘s] Berlin or [Pulp‘s] This Is Hardcore. The frenzied dance-punk of “other voices” and exhilarating post-punk clash of “emotional haircut” are atypically benched in favor of Murphy’s other signature songwriting talent. Spinning anthemic, live-in-the-moment choruses out of regret-plagued hangovers, Murphy’s american dream shines on “call the police” and the album’s title track, renewing the morning-after sentimentalism perfected on Sound of Silver‘s “All My Friends.”
By the time the listener reaches “black screen,” the mournfully stoic 12-minute Bowie-esque dirge that closes the album, one has witnessed, wittingly or not, a minefield of subtle and unsubtle references to his late collaborator. Though he cowered from the opportunity co-produce Bowie’s swan song Blackstar, Murphy stuck around long enough to be moved by his brief mentorship but, incidentally, overwhelmed by it. “I had fear in the room / so I stopped showing up,” Murphy agonizes, ruminating with boyish earnestness, “I’m bad at people things / I should’ve tried more.”
It’s easy to imagine american dream going horribly wrong had it been attempted by anybody else. But Murphy’s technical mastery and deep back pocket of inspirers guards the album’s elevated introspectiveness against the too-easy hazard of saccharinity. There’s almost a meekness one can sniff at certain points on the album, only to be swiftly obviated by a balancing vanity. The dueling qualities of self-regard, on one hand, that would compel one to bow out with inflated grandeur, and self-deprecation, on the other, that might afflict you after tip-toeing back, provide the tension that’s palpably felt throughout american dream. However frustrating, it’s all part of the dance.
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