#19. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
James Murphy has “it”, whatever it is. As cliché as that sounds, you know what I mean. Maybe it’s the Midas touch, or just some uncanny sense of what is cool and what is lame and boring. But I mean, if you look at it on paper, the guy isn’t really your prototypical popstar or quintessential club DJ – he’s an ever-so-slightly pudgy Irish dude that looks more like he would be in a British film about football (read: soccer) hooliganism than the co-founder of subterranean dance music label DFA Records and the frontman of the hipster dance machine that is LCD Soundsystem. Oh, and in 1992, he was offered a job as a writer on Seinfeld, so there you go…
But man, I remember when when DFA put out the Rapture’s “House Of Jealous Lovers” single in 2002, Murphy seemed to get as much attention for the production approach as the band did for the song itself. Despite the sweaty, raw disco-punk churn of the title track from their 2001 SubPop EP, Out Of The Races And Onto The Tracks, it seemed as if it was Murphy who was getting all the credit for getting people to dance to real drums again. And maybe he deserved it.
After all, there was a freshness to the DFA sound that seemed to hint at a greater vision. This wasn’t simply Gang of Four rehash with a little added freneticism, it was more than that. There was the sensibility of a club DJ underneath it all, this pervading subtext of “first and foremost, are we dancing yet?” And then, that same year, in what seemed simultaneously an act of self-effacement and cred-boasting, Murphy released the first single from LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge”. For almost eight minutes, Murphy reminisces, boasts, and confesses his fear of irrelevancy before he’s even gotten started, all the while riding an infectious drum groove (which, oddly enough, is executed to even greater effect in The Rapture’s “Killing”). LCD Soundsystem was immediately talked about as “the guy who runs DFA – it’s his project”, and as the singles trickled out one after another, hype for a full-length reached a fever pitch.
And finally it came – the debut was eponymous, and it was unequivocally… cool. And fun. And entirely danceable. Murphy rehashed a couple singles, brought the party, flexed his pop muscles, and even found time for a dreamy Beatles-esque tangent, the lovely “Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up”, a song which I, for one, can relate to. And that was really what made the album so fresh and engaging: Sure, there was an all-nighter being pulled, but you were kind of getting to know the guy throwing it as the night went on, and moreover, he seemed genuinely cool.
The formula grew better with age, and the band’s second album, Sound of Silver, was a critical success. A few Grammy nominations (on top of the two for the self-titled) elevated Murphy’s profile as not only a crack producer and innovator of dance music, but also a musical personality. He was a hero of sorts to music geeks everywhere – the kid who was a nerd about records and, for all intents and purposes, should not be cool… All of a sudden he was a Grammy-nominated, Pitchfork approved, dance band frontman. He was singing, and he sounded pretty damn good, and he was getting the coolest kids around to dance.
By the time This Is Happening came out last year, the early days of DFA and the advent of “dance-punk” seemed a distant, and slightly irrelevant memory. Could LCD Soundsystem still pull off the same kind of 6, 7, 8+ min. dance forays and get people to keep listening, stay interested, and keep dancing? Murphy side-steps these potential pitfalls in a way, instead focusing on making another album full of subtle, wry commentary on topics both personal and public, draping them in the kind of propulsive house party tracks that seem to roll effortlessly out of his studio set-up. It seems that, unlike many other career artists who seem to run out of things to say, yet have music to spare, Murphy is still tapping into some poignant and universal themes, making for a very unique experience of relating to dance music, and having it not just be physically, but also lyrically, cathartic.
The album opens with “Dance Yrself Clean”, spreading out a light, sparse bed of handclaps, roto-toms, cowbell, and fuzzy synth pulses, as Murphy works his way in and out of the exhaustion of recurring conflict in a relationship. It feels like a sweet sigh of a song until the 3:10 mark, when the semi-automatic snare drum breaks the light melancholy, and a concrete-grinding synth bounces off the surface of the drum beat. It all pauses for a moment, as Murphy notes “Every night’s a different story / It’s a thirty car pile-up with you / Everybody’s getting younger / It’s the end of an era, it’s true”, only to slam back into the groove.
“Drunk Girls” follows, evoking the punkier side of Brit-pop, a la Blur’s Parklife, and “One Touch” moves more towards the true DJ epicenter of LCD Soundsystem’s electronica/dance persona, reminiscent of what a James Murphy remix of New Order might sound like. The album’s apex is its fifth track, “I Can Change”, wherein Murphy displays his innate pop smarts with a springy synth lead and an airy, pleading melody: “Tell me a line \ Make it easy for me \ Open your arms \ Dance with me until I feel all right”. Murphy revisits his signature “talky” approach on “Pow Pow”, replete with group-vocal party shouts peppering a Brooklyn jungle beat. The album closes with the pulsing synth arpeggiation of “Home”, clicking along at a head-bobbing tempo. Murphy alludes to late-night escapism, suggesting “So grab your things and stumble into the night \ So we can shut the door \ Oh, shut the door on terrible times”. It shouldn’t surprise that there are many lyrical references to dancing and parties on this, or any LCD record, but it is rather remarkable that Murphy is able to incorporate such obvious and seemingly frivolous themes with the very real issues that often bring people out of their homes and down to the club in the first place: the things that they’re trying to get away from, to momentarily lose themselves and forget about it all.
This Is Happening employs the same concise tracklisting that its predecessors utilized to such positive effect. Though the songs themselves are long, the albums don’t feel like aimless wanderings into a blurry maze of beats and smarmy musings – they still maintain the feel of artistic focus. Though he’s at the point of rounding out his first decade of prominence in the industry and starting his fourth decade of life, Murphy still seems to possess an intangible freshness and relevance. Even the album title points towards an immediacy, the same present-tense that pervades his music. He’s no longer looking back, reminiscing, and wondering if he has what it takes to make it. He’s stopped worrying about whether he’s losing his edge, or if he ever even had one, for that matter. An “edge” would suggest a small advantage over one’s contemporaries, and if there’s one thing that Murphy has proven time and time again, it’s that he is a truly unique and singular voice in the world of dance, and music in general, always finding ways to work through his issues in the middle of the party while still playing the role of DJ rather than drama queen.