Do the collapse
New York scene-makers consign early retirement to the dust with dark uplifting album borne of entropy and death, says Victoria Segal. Illustration: Ian Wright.
There can be few better justifications for making a controversial decision than “David Bowie told me to do it”. In 2011, after nine years of uniting the millennial tribes with a modish blend of dance and post-punk, the vintage and the box-fresh, James Murphy called time on LCD Soundsystem. The band played out in decisively showy style: there was a Madison Square Garden farewell, a concert film called Shut Up And Play The Hits, and tying it all up, the box set The Long Goodbye. Murphy kept busy with his Renaissance man projects after the band went dark – launching his own brand of coffee, opening a wine bar in Brooklyn, planning to re-record the noise of New York subway ticket barriers. Most significantly, he played percussion on Bowie’s Blackstar, a record he was in the frame to co-produce with Tony Visconti until he decided getting in the middle of that working relationship might be “overwhelming”. He did, however, receive advice from Bowie – if the idea of reforming LCD Soundsystem made him uncomfortable, do it. By the start of 2016, the band had released a single, Christmas Will Break Your Heart, and announced they would headline that year’s Coachella. Despite Bowie’s wisdom, however, uncomfortable feels very much within Murphy’s comfort zone. While American Dream, the first LCD Soundsystem LP since 2010’s This Is Happening, wakes up in some of the coldest, darkest corners of the band’s career – the clanging gothic hate-song of How Do You Sleep?, for example, or the disturbing psychotic break of Other Voices – Murphy never lets the songs be swamped by pointless negativity. There’s always a point. Aging, death, time, built-in obsolescence: they have all been on Murphy’s mind since 2002 debut Losing My Edge, that tragicomic howl of despair from a scenester suddenly aware that the “kids are coming up from behind” and all the cool records in the world (“The Sonics!”) can’t insulate against time. All My Friends was a heartfelt burst of middle-aged alienation; Dance Yrself Clean, from 2010’s “final” record This Is Happening, observed “everybody’s getting younger”. On American Dream’s fabulous Tonite, Murphy rings the changes slightly: “You’re getting older,” he says, a disco preacher keen to get his wordy message of gloom out, “I promise you this/ You’re getting older.” This, at least, we’re all in together. It makes sense that this was the
“THE RECORD FEELS BACKDROPPED BY CHAOS, A WORLD WRENCHED OUT OF JOINT.”
last album to be recorded at Murphy’s DFA studio in New York before it was sold: American Dream feels destabilised, slippery, in between worlds no matter how earthy the beats, no matter how engagingly conversational Murphy’s phrasing can be. He dismisses the idea that people might expect this to be LCD Soundsystem’s grand political statement given the satirical potential of the title – “For me that would be stunning if you’ve ever heard anything that I’ve made,” he tells MOJO, “like, ‘here comes the social commentary and politics from a glib jerk’” – yet the record does feel backdropped by chaos, a world wrenched out of joint. Call The Police, New Order in Pulp suiting, hurtles by in a hectic whirl of sickness, conflict and “some questionable views”, Murphy crying out for “the Leonards and the Lous” as if they are missing compass points, the balances needed to restore order. Elsewhere, the conflict is more personal: distortions coming from unhappy brain chemistry and dropped connections. “You took acid and looked in the mirror/Watched the beard crawl around on your face,” sings Murphy disarmingly on the sickly-sweet, see-sawing torch song of the title track, while the Breaking Glass convulsions of Change Yr Mind layer Kabbalistic guitar squall with a terrible inertia: “I ain’t seen anyone for days /I still have yet to leave the bed.” I Used To, with its martial bleep, stares down the barrel of selling out: “We’re talking tough/But on suburban lawns/In prone positions”, before a cry of “I’m still trying to wake up”. The “Dream” of the title feels quite literal, the songs often afflicted by a trance-like sense of disconnection, a woozy unreality. Opener Oh Baby beats with a drowsy pulse, a song about waking up from a bad dream into another form of nightmare, while the record ends with the clean Eno lines of Black Screen, a song of grief, a tiny pixel absorbed into a vast humming network. In between, there are rebirths and losses, from the dot-dash guitar thrash of Emotional Haircut, a spiky act of aggro and destruction, to the alarming Other Voices with its sudden vocal distortions, a robotic spoken-word segment from Nancy Whang and Murphy’s unnerving insistence that “you’re just a baby now”. (“You should be uncomfortable,” shouts the singer at the end, possibly echoing Bowie’s advice.) The bleakest track, though, is How Do You Sleep?, a miserable hate song to a former friend who leaves the narrator with the very Mark E Smith-sounding “vape clowns” while they are off doing cocaine. It sounds like Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division being boiled with The Cure (“Standing on the shore getting old”), a cold grey electronic vista very far from anything like a good time. Yet like all the best downbeat music, American Dream is oddly uplifting, the brilliance of the music turning lyrical misery into a bonding experience rather than a bludgeon. Its compelling qualities suggest the decision to regroup was less to do with Bowie, boredom, or commercial impulses, rather the inability to leave LCD Soundsystem alone when there’s still so much to thrash out. Thus American Dream feels like a strong re-statement of what they do, and what they can mean, a record that, despite its fear of death, feels very much alive. Those kids coming up from behind, haven’t chased James Murphy down yet.
KEY TRACKS ● I Used To ● Tonite ● Call The Police