2012 In Review: Filling The LCD Soundsystem Void
2012 was the first full year without LCD Soundsystem since James Murphy distilled the fleeting essence of cool into seven-some comically heartrending minutes a decade prior. To remind us what we lost when the balloons came down and the lights came up at Madison Square Garden, directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace released Shut Up And Play The Hits, a concert film and documentary about that instant-legend farewell show and its aftermath. As a music movie, it functions as a brilliant sequel to Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, capturing not just the thrill of LCD in action but the camaraderie among these musicians, the love they had for each other and for the incredible sounds they made together. As a narrative, it’s far less euphoric, using the non-musical segments to indelicately hammer home Murphy’s apprehension and creeping regret about the decision to end his band in its prime. (And there can be no doubt after watching the movie that LCD Soundsystem was in its prime.) The morning after, Murphy wakes up hung over and stares blankly at his pug. They wander Brooklyn aimlessly together. He visits his manager to contemplate the afterglow. Upon visiting the band’s headquarters, where loads of gear and memorabilia have become instant relics, he breaks down — this after we hear him admit to Chuck Klosterman, whose interview with Murphy is threaded throughout the film, that stopping the band might have been his biggest mistake.
No one could blame Murphy for being bummed about the consequences of his own practicality, nor could you blame Shut Up And Play The Hits’ directors for allowing that vibe to underscore and intensify the ebullience that surges through the performance footage. The end of this band brought on a real feeling of loss for all involved, one that I never would have imagined the first time I heard “Losing My Edge,” and one that Murphy probably never imagined back when LCD was nothing more than his personal studio project. Over the course of a decade, the LCD Soundsystem identity became a deeply significant part of Murphy’s life trajectory, not to mention something with powerful resonance for countless other people. By spilling his guts all over his impressive record collection, Murphy became the defining voice of an era, the avatar for an entire subculture’s midlife crisis. He burrowed deeper and more domestic with his cultural and personal critiques until the sardonic delirium of “Yeah!” and “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” gave way to the spun-out rapture of “All My Friends” and a promise that “I can change if it makes you fall in love.”
Along the way, his bandmates became an integral component of his music’s power, to the point that ending LCD Soundsystem meant much more than just a different name on the spine of Murphy’s next record. At first, he thought of the live incarnation of the project as “the LCD Soundsystem cover band,” a distinct entity from his revolutionary studio work; as he explains to Klosterman in the movie, “I didn’t start a band. I made a record.” But the unit that powered through three-plus hours at MSG had developed rare chemistry, the kind that could escalate to transcendence on any given night. Having experienced this twice in person, I desperately wanted to make the trip from Ohio to New York for LCD’s final bow, but the logistics proved too daunting. So I distinctly remember the joy I felt the day after the show when pro-quality video of the whole thing (presumably ripped from the live stream) appeared on YouTube just long enough to load it up and take it all in. Even on a laptop screen, witnessing this event churned up an emotional rampage, two parts elation and one part nagging sadness that this would never happen again. Those feelings only amplified July 18 of this year when I took it all in again, this time on the big screen, this time privy to Murphy’s crippling doubt about pulling the plug. He had reasonable motives, of course — preserving his legacy, pursuing normalcy before life passed him by — but his apprehension is reasonable, too. I felt like a part of my heart went away with this band, and Murphy had much more invested in it than I did. LCD Soundsystem left a big fucking gap.
Judging from Zach Baron’s great New York Times Magazine profile from last summer, Murphy has spent the time since April 2, 2011 filling that gap with activities including but not limited to DJing, scuba diving, acting in The Comedy (a film “aimed directly at people who can’t stand themselves,” per Grantland’s Steven Hyden), barista training (in both London and New York — the man is serious about his barista training), designing his own custom luggage and working toward opening a Williamsburg boutique called House Of Good in which to sell this luggage and sundry other personal favorites. So, basically, everything except making life-changing music. Sure, there’s been “little synth songs at other people’s studios,” and news recently broke that Murphy is helping with the next Arcade Fire record, which, if it’s anything like Kevin Shields producing Primal Scream, will be awesome. Still, no grand statements on the horizon yet. Murphy seems to have opted for a palate-cleansing life makeover before diving head-first into a new musical project. That’s reasonable; I would want to make a clean break too — take some time to clear my head, come back to music with a fresh perspective.
I’ve been trying to fill my own LCD Soundsystem-shaped hole, especially since Shut Up And Play The Hits reminded me what I was missing. The world is a better place with music that moves your body, throttles your senses, and blurs the line between heart and mind. And while nothing is going to instantly match the cultural clout Murphy built up over the course of a decade, the search for new music that stokes the same emotional territory hasn’t been entirely fruitless. LCD left an enduring influence, and a few of Murphy disciples and/or kindred spirits made music that intrigued and even delighted me in 2012.
More on the kindred spirit side of things is Sinkane, whose Mars came out on Murphy’s DFA Records in October. I’ve been following Ahmed Gallab, the brains behind the Brooklyn band, since way back when he was based in Columbus, so I’m pretty familiar with the ground he covered before linking up with DFA. (Full disclosure: Gallab and I once took a car trip from Columbus to Athens, Ohio, to see Man Man, and he produced an album I played guitar on.) Gallab has a lot in common with Murphy, from his voracious appetite for records to his distinct personal vision. Like Murphy, he kicked around DIY music for years before making some smart moves, catching some lucky breaks, and finally making a record that lives up to his promise. Previous Sinkane albums have felt like expansive worlds, but that expansiveness was always hindered by the feeling of being adrift in that space. From the percussive pulse that courses through “Runnin'” onward, Mars proves to be a record with no shortage of forward momentum. Its globetrotting, genre-defying songs are wonderful to explore, even if they don’t cut to my heart the same way LCD Soundsystem did.
Better to bear that emotional weight is New Ships, the recent EP from fellow DFA affiliates Benoit & Sergio. Pitchfork came right out and called this D.C. duo’s music “wry, affecting dance tracks for a post-LCD Soundsystem world,” so of course I dove right in. It’s definitely on the clubbier side of the spectrum, built on killing-me-softly featherweight grooves rather than the rhythmic crunch that powered even Murphy’s most wistful ballads. (“Someone Great” will break your heart and your subwoofers at the same damn time; shit, maybe I should be wrangling Future’s robo-rap mindfuck Pluto into this discussion.) I found a lot to love in Benoit & Sergio’s graceful glide and the imagery of lyrics like “So many nooses around my neck,” so I’m eagerly awaiting the full-length that’s coming next year. Still, this stuff reminds me of Junior Boys’ bleary-but-nimble after-hours melancholia more than it evokes the feverish thrills of LCD Soundsystem.
The most satisfying torchbearer I’ve stumbled upon so far is a group of guys making the same DJ-to-rock band leap Murphy made. The Boston- and NYC-based trio WIN WIN released its second LP this year, and it might as well have been the fourth LCD Soundsystem album. (I mean that almost entirely as a compliment, though I still maintain that lead single “SALT DAYS+,” awesome though it may be, rips off “Dance Yrself Clean” pretty hard.) There are other elements in play on Double Vision — a vocal resemblance to Gruff Rhys, a melodic kinship with Paul Simon — but mostly I hear the spirit of LCD Soundsystem. The record doesn’t play like a tribute to Murphy so much as the next logical step for his sound. WIN WIN fearlessly grafts rock music to dance music in a way that never feels contrived but always feels rooted in pop. There is sonic innovation, but never at the expense of songs. It’s the same delicate balance Murphy pulled off so beautifully, and I’m so glad somebody is keeping it alive in a way that feels like such a purposeful extension of his work.
As much as that speaks to LCD Soundsystem’s enduring influence, it also proves the band had more ground left to cover. The line Murphy used when announcing the breakup, which the filmmakers repeated on the title card that leads off Shut Up and Play the Hits, is “If it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever.” This sentiment feels odd coming from a man who’s throwing his own wake — nobody celebrates a suicide — but it actually did turn out to be the greatest funeral ever, or at least the best one since The Last Waltz. The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler drew the comparison between Shut Up and Martin Scorsese’s classic document of The Band’s big farewell bash, but Fassler cited an important difference: “While many performers featured in The Last Waltz had released their best material years earlier — think Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Van Morrison — this goodbye felt strangely premature. The pervading feeling was that LCD Soundsystem was only getting started.”
It’s hard not to think of similar retirements from athletes like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, two generation-defining running backs who stepped out of football at the peak of their powers, well before the first signs of rust. We’ll always wonder how much greatness those guys had left in the tank. On the other hand, by hanging up the cleats when they did, they never allowed themselves the chance to sully their legacies (on the field, at least; as an Ohio State fan, I’ll never forgive Brown’s exceedingly poor counsel to Maurice Clarett). Their output is uniformly awesome, which certainly seems like an objective Murphy had in mind when he told Baron, “I felt like, barring me making a terrible record, it was about to potentially either fail, or get bigger, and neither was very enticing to me.” By ending LCD Soundsystem before they had the chance to suck, he sidestepped the many pitfalls of aging gracefully.
But if any band seemed geared to age gracefully, it was LCD Soundsystem. In terms of athletics, a better corollary for the band’s premature demise might be Michael Jordan’s retirement in 1993 after the Bulls’ first “threepeat.” (With LCD’s trio of monumental full-lengths, Murphy even scored his own threepeat of sorts.) Having dominated his chosen field, Jordan stepped aside to pursue other dreams. I can’t help thinking of Murphy’s long list of extracurriculars — “Indie Club King Surveys Other Thrones,” reads the NYT headline — as the equivalent to Jordan’s doomed dalliance with baseball. Jordan eventually came to his senses, returned to the NBA and reeled off three more championships; he was back where he belonged. Maybe, unlike Jordan’s baseball career, one of Murphy’s new projects will make it out of the minor leagues. But it seems more like he’s consciously avoiding his true calling.
There’s one more frequently drawn parallel to consider in all this, one that makes me reconsider my desire to see LCD Soundsystem rise again. Eight years before LCD bowed out with a farewell show at MSG, Jay-Z did the same thing. There was even a movie about that concert too, a tremendously enjoyable celebrity parade called Fade To Black. At the time, Jay-Z said the show marked his retirement from rap. We all know what happened next: He returned with another album just three years later, by far the worst album of his career. Few of his releases since then have grazed the quality of his pre-retirement output. You can make a strong case that he should have stayed retired, or at least stopped making albums; surely “Empire State Of Mind” could have been released as a standalone?
Murphy made no such promises about staying out of the game. He ended LCD Soundsystem, not his recording career, and in doing so he removed a tremendous amount of the pressure that would have been on his shoulders every time he made a new record; that’s one advantage of working under a pseudonym, one Jay-Z won’t ever enjoy unless he decides to make an album as Shawn Carter or something. Murphy will undoubtedly create more music, and much of it will undoubtedly be great, but that pesky “What if?” will always be lingering. Perhaps by keeping LCD Soundsystem on the shelf, Murphy will protect us from the disappointment of a Jay-Z-quality comeback. But he just might be depriving us of another Jordan-style dynasty.