LCD Soundsystem returns with ‘American Dream’
Here’s the thing about most comebacks: They’re rarely worth it, except to the artist’s bank account. So skepticism, if not downright cynicism, precedes LCD Soundsystem’s first album since 2010, a feeling compounded by LCD’s announcement that it was playing its “final” concert in 2011.
That’s a lot of baggage to shake off, and the arrival of “American Dream” (DFA/Columbia) may not be enough to do the job. The album gets personal, but in a more low-key way than ever before. This from a band that specialized during its first incarnation in blending brisk singles, bittersweet anthems and more experimental deep cuts.
“American Dream” doubles down emotionally, with fewer obvious singles and a slower but more moving array of songs that gain cumulative power. If prerelease singles “Call the Police” and “American Dream” were a bit underwhelming when rated against earlier hits such as “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and “Tribulations,” they resonate more deeply when heard in the context of the entire album.
“American Dream” is a breakup album of sorts but not in the traditional sense. This is about breakups with youth, the past, and the heroes and villains that populated it. It underlines the notion of breaking up as just a step away from letting go — of friends, family, relevance. Sound familiar? Now 47, James Murphy is an artist who was fretting that he was “losing my edge” on the first LCD album. He has never shied from addressing the notion that the best of him is slipping away as the years roll past. On the new album, that viewpoint feels a little less ironic and humorous than it once did.
Murphy opens up as a singer. On the opening “Oh, Baby,” he repurposes Suicide tracks such as “Dream Baby Dream” and “Cheree” into a noir-ish electro-doo-wop that is eventually swallowed up by a cocoon of keyboards.
The nine-minute “How Do You Sleep?” cops the title of John Len- non’s ode to betrayal, and Murphy turns it into a haunted dreamscape, his voice distant and receding against the thunder of tribal drums. “I remember when we were friends,” he sings. “I remember calling you friend.”
“Tonite” is the album’s catchiest track, a galloping complaint about — what else? — artistic inertia. The singer breaks down the fourth wall between him and the listener, and offers a brief glimpse of the smart-aleck Murphy of old. “I never realized these artists talk so much about time,” he cracks. It’s the “Losing My Edge” character turned into a “hobbled veteran.” He appears again in “Change Yr. Mind,” with its skronky guitar commenting on the cranky narrator’s encroaching feelings of irrelevance. The title track, a slow-motion waterfall, cycles through a series of temporary relationships, a futile attempt to stave off mortality. “In the morning everything’s clearer/ When the sunlight exposes your age,” Murphy sings, rueful humor in full effect.
It’s the same old shtick in some ways, but it’s worth noting that Murphy’s struggle is not so much against mortality as it is complacency. The music serves as an antidote: disruptive guitars that speak in spasmodic bursts on “Change Yr. Mind” or wriggle snakelike through “Other Voices,” the inter- locking cross rhythms of “I Used To,” the spastic funk of “Emotional Haircut.”
Though Murphy can sometimes come across as a spoiled uppermiddle-class rock star fretting about not being “cool” enough, his affection for his musical guides is real. He peppers the album with nods to Suicide’s Alan Vega, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, all of whom died while LCD was away. The closing “Black Screen” is essentially a 12-minute goodbye to his friend and greatest influence, David Bowie. Murphy sounds as if he’s singing to himself in a darkened room. He unspools memories and regrets about a relationship ended too soon, the music a long, slow fade to black that echoes a line from earlier in the album: “Life is finite, but ... it feels like forever.”
Bowie remained a creative force to the end. He died only days after releasing one of his most daring albums in 2016. You can bet Murphy was thinking about that a lot while LCD Soundsystem was away.
3 out of 4 stars
James Murphy, frontman and brainchild of LCD Soundsystem