Listen to LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening.
James Murphy’s powerhouse funtime band goes out on top
Over the course of three proper full-length albums and a smattering of singles, LCD Soundsystem—the oft-one-man-show of New York DJ, producer and DFA Records co-honcho James Murphy—has become an increasingly sure bet. But it wasn’t always so. His first single was 2002’s “Losing My Edge,” an eight-minute takedown of rock ‘n’ roll posturing (“I used to work in the record store / I had everything before anyone”) that was almost more notable in scope and subject matter than for its musicality. When LCD’s self-titled debut came out three years later, lead single “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” toyed with hipster braggadocio in much the same way and became the album’s—and the band’s—big hook. Murphy seemed like some kind of schlubby Nerd King, weirdly cool despite himself, lording over his turntables in a hoodie and button-down.
But LCD Soundsystem avoided novelty-act territory with a helping of self-skewering; Murphy dressed himself down almost more than anyone else, stripping away all traces of preening entitlement and pretense, readying himself for a three-album run that would build on—not trade on—his cutting wit. The records have a wry take on certain social graces, toying with the kids packing underground bars and the same kind of house parties that probably wound up blasting the songs. “It’s like a discipline / Without the discipline of all of the discipline / It’s like a fat guy in a T-shirt / Doing all the saying,” he sang on “Movement,” from LCD Soundsystem, which sounded just like the throwdowns it mocked, all loose, slappy beats and whomping synths. Two years later, Sound of Silver tightened, brightened and focused those same elements; Murphy sounded more sure of himself, too, but wearier. He elbow-rubbed with the kids on “North American Scum,” but tracks like “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” saw him stretching out his lower back on the sidelines.
He was drifting away from the scene and into his own head, which is mostly where This Is Happening finds him—and which, as it turns out, is as fun as any club. LCD Soundsystem has always been tagged as dance music, but that’s only ever been partly true; here, from the opening song, that demarcation further is confounded. “Dance Yrself Clean” shuffles out as an ostensibly low-key track, with insouciant, pattering drums and Murphy singing about shitty friends. A tweedling keyboard rolls in, and what sounds like a can of nails rattles gently as the song putts along until the three-minute mark, when an explosion of jackhammering synth and drums blasts clear through the chill haze. You can move your body any which way for the next six minutes, assuming you can scrape your brains off the floor. The song winds back down to its unassuming beginnings just in time for second track “Drunk Girls” to come kicking through the doors; it’s the album’s first single and more reminiscent of LCD’s best-known early songs in its jumpy take on nightlife shenanigans, but its manic energy and swelling, “Oh, oh, oh! / I believe in waking up together” chorus makes it sound like one last hurrah for old times’ sake before heading home to leftovers and Netflix.
Make no mistake: Murphy and his crew are fully committed to this album. There’s a remarkable sustained energy to this collection; its electronic textures thrum and shimmy, and wall after sonic wall is built up and torn down with impeccable precision. But there’s an odd tension throughout; Murphy sounds both all-in and like he’s keeping one eye on the exit—in no small part, surely, because he intends this album to be LCD Soundsystem’s last. It’s not a swan-song, exactly—that would require some degree of sentimentality and forced closure that seems wholly absent from Murphy’s world—but it’s deliberate and no-nonsense; he doesn’t want to waste his time, or yours, or anyone’s. Maybe he senses he’s in danger of eventually outstaying his welcome, becoming the kind of artist of whom people say things like, “Yeah, he kind of just does that one thing, but I like that one thing.” That “one thing” would be a hundred tiny things, of course (picking his favorite parts of electronica and house and punk and pop and soul and splicing it all into his own wryly syncopated vision, affixed with a healthy bit of brattiness). While it’s certainly still working for him now—This Is Happening is, in all respects, LCD’s best album—it doesn’t take much to imagine the act becoming a tired gag a couple more albums down the line.
For now, though, we get a handful of parting gifts: The insistently lovelorn “Change,” featuring Murphy’s most oddly sophisticated vocal delivery to date; the percolating piss and vinegar of “Hit” and its record industry shrug-off; the skittering, spoken-word discourse, snide asides and comic-book chorus of “Pow Pow.” It’ll be a shame to see LCD Soundsystem go—but you know, the coolest kids always ditch the party early.