LCD Soundsystem Turns 10
When we revisited the early-’00s NYC rock boom back in November, one of the rules we put in place was that 2005 marked some kind of ending for that movement. We included songs from 2005, but that stuff seemed like the last gasp of the scene. By that year, the whole retro-rock/post-punk revival had lost its initial excitement and was yielding the diminishing returns of last minute hop-ons like the Bravery. If you look at the latter half of the ’00s in NYC-based music, it’s a very different landscape. The last allegiances to the old, gritty Lower East Side yielded to an ascendant Brooklyn, the new epicenter of New York’s music scene after a few years gestating in the role. The Walkmen found themselves in a rewarding second act come 2008, and TV On The Radio, alien geniuses that they are, may have dominated both halves of the decade, but the Strokes, Interpol, even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs eventually reached a point of diminishing returns, too. There were a new set of the bands that began to dominate and define the city’s music scene in the second half of last decade. A big reason why 2005 was marked as some kind of dividing line was this: Ten years ago, in the final, dwindling days of January ’05, LCD Soundsystem released their formal opening salvo, a self-titled debut album.
The reason I use “formal opening salvo” is that LCD, and James Murphy in general, had been kicking around for a few years prior to the release of LCD Soundsystem, and in ways relevant to the early ’00s NYC scene. Having played a key role in the Rapture’s “House Of Jealous Lovers,” Murphy and erstwhile DFA partner Tim Goldsworthy fleshed out the whole “dancepunk” notion that’d run alongside the early ’00s rock resurgence, and also gave us one of the era’s most memorable and iconic songs. LCD, as a more specific project for Murphy, actually debuted in 2002 with “Losing My Edge,” which, of course, is one hell of an opening salvo, one towering song simultaneously showing off and eviscerating all manner of musician/music nerd/hipster tropes. (Given the context that Murphy was living and working in NYC, the whole thing has kind of an unspoken but specific interaction with notions and posturing of NYC cool in general.) And there were a few more amazing singles to follow, my personal favorite being “Yeah (Crass Version),” which is one of those all-encompassing listening experiences that seems to take total control of your being each time you hear it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. These singles were collected on a second disc for LCD Soundsystem, which is such a weird thing for a debut album: Here’s essentially a double album, with a bunch of songs that have been released before but could’ve been as totally new as the first disc to a lot of people who bought the record. And, damn, if that was the case for you, this is some overwhelming stuff: Who the hell is this guy who came out of nowhere with this strong debut album and this other disc that functions as its own kind of album, too?
The power of what Murphy had achieved already being re-packaged with his new, full-length debut actually weakened the music on LCD Soundsystem for some critics. At the time, some people argued he still wasn’t an “album” guy, that he was really good at single songs that maybe sort of didn’t necessarily come together into one cohesive whole. People still talked, a lot, about how Murphy wore his influences on his sleeve, but they seemed a bit more forgiving of it for them than they had been for some of his immediate NYC predecessors, because, I guess, this dude is just undeniably good at making sounds, and he’s just undeniably good at tastefully aping those influences. And while there’s a whole other thing to be said about that influences bit (more on that below), the part I’m somewhat more sympathetic to is the idea that Murphy hadn’t totally arrived as an album artist.
This is a hindsight thing, but, yeah, LCD Soundsystem doesn’t reach the heights of Sound Of Silver or This Is Happening; not only because there were still songs like “All My Friends” and “Someone Great” and “Dance Yrself Clean” and “I Can Change” to come, but also because those were proper, brilliantly cohesive albums. That’s not to say the first album doesn’t have its classics and its gems. There is, of course, “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” and “Tribulations” and “Movement.” Whenever I hear people talk about one of their favorite lesser-known LCD tracks, the psych-pop exercise “Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up” is a forerunner. Personally, it’s “Great Release” for me. There is an unsettling power to that song if you listen to it in times of mindless transit: a crowded subway commute, the sterility of passing through a nice airport, the monotony and trance of a drive you’ve taken too many times. There’s this drift to it. In its way, it’s a gorgeous coda to album, a final refrain that does seem a definitive stopping point. But in another way, it feels like it suggests something else to come. It’s not like the lyrics are full of hope and laughs, but musically it sort of ends LCD Soundsystem on a bit of an ellipsis, too.
And that’s the thing: There’s something about LCD’s debut that does feel like a sketch for what came later. In its day, it was plenty powerful. Then we saw what else Murphy was capable of. I was at the last two LCD shows, and in the spring of 2011, six years after the release of LCD Soundsystem, “Tribulations” and “Movement” and “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” were entirely different animals live, flexing new muscles and new textures alike, welcomed into the more fully realized identity of LCD Soundsystem that Murphy had continued to build in those interim years. For every amazingly accomplished and confident early outing like “Yeah” or “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” or “Losing My Edge,” there were tracks like “Thrills” and “Disco Infiltrator” and even “On Repeat” (another LCD deep cut favorite of mine) that seemed a bit half-there in comparison. These were strands that hadn’t yet been totally collected. On the next two records, Murphy would take all his disparate elements and blend them more thoroughly, more deftly, into a fuller sound. In the context of LCD’s career, there is a thinness and unrefined quality to LCD Soundsystem. There might be classic songs littering the LCD canon from 2002-2005, but soon Murphy would come back with two classic albums in a row, and his debut can’t stand up to that stuff at all as an album.
Don’t get me wrong: This is still music I love. This is a great album to have in existence. It’s just hard to remember what it was like when this was the only LCD music out there. It’s so easy to have it overshadowed by what came later, and especially the narrative of this project, steadily rising in quality and popularity until Murphy suddenly just decided that was it — at a point many would call, let’s say, premature. And, to me, another part of that narrative is: LCD Soundsystem is one of the most important artists of the 21st century so far. Conversations of authenticity and derivativeness, of chasing some new sound vs. bearing your influences too clearly: These things are of course always floating in the atmosphere, but how muddled and/or irrelevant do they feel in 2015 vs. 1995 or even 2005? If you look back at those initial LCD reviews, you can tell the writers are still reeling from a million Strokes copycats, copies of a copy of a copy, etc., etc. And that show-off/evisceration balance of Murphy cataloguing his record collection in “Losing My Edge” practically invites a critic to dissect where this or that LCD sound came from.
There’s something different going on with LCD Soundsystem, though. Curation and homage were woven into the very nature of Murphy’s music. LCD’s music raises questions of authenticity and derivativeness, it can lead to interesting conversations about those topics. But it also came along and, if you ask me, obliterated a lot of discussion about it all at a moment where that was a big part of the discourse in the indie rock world. You know, who’s going to stop James Murphy if, after giving us “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” he felt like giving us “Heroes” and calling it “All I Want.” The thing that makes Murphy one of the luminaries of his era is that his music captures the way we think and perceive and consume in the 21st century. I want some of this, some of that, a few of those things, and I’ll carry them all with me, and sometimes it’ll result in some new mix of those things that I hadn’t thought about before, and sometimes it’ll just wind up sounding a lot like a really famous David Bowie song. So it goes.
There are only three LCD Soundsystem LPs, which makes it tempting to look at them as a trilogy. But because of what I described above, in recent years it’s been hard for me to not consider LCD Soundsystem as some kind of prologue to Sound Of Silver and This Is Happening. That version of LCD — the version that helped me parse a world where I could access anything anytime, constantly bringing little bits of new things into my own self, the version that so effectively captured how our contemporary culture might forever, inevitably, be one so clearly dominated by a series of patinas — that version is the one I was talking about when I said LCD became more fully realized on the subsequent two albums. LCD Soundsystem, and 2005, might’ve been a part of a transitional time in that regard. The crazy thing about LCD Soundsystem turning 10 is that it underlines, once more, the very short period of time in which these guys went from some label/producer dude’s project to absolute indie luminaries, to James Murphy one of the icons of a certain culture for a certain era. It feels like ten years ago that LCD broke up. It feels like so much changed between when this debut came out in 2005 and when This Is Happening came out in 2010, and when LCD Soundsystem played their final show in 2011. Revisiting LCD Soundsystem’s debut is kind of a weird experience because of that: It makes me think of all the noise of this century, and all the context surrounding this album and James Murphy’s career, and it makes me think as much about the ending of LCD as the beginning. It makes me think that a lot of artists would kill to write songs this memorable, and that Murphy beat himself at his own game just two years later; it makes me think about how he was getting so much better so fast. So, most of all, it makes me think: What would’ve happened in another five years of LCD Soundsystem albums?