Even in a year as overcrowded with events in the music world as 2016 has been — whether the tragic loss of old icons, or the overflow of stunning releases from new icons — LCD Soundsystem’s sudden reunion is a big story. It’s garnered perhaps as much exasperation from the doubtful as it has excitement from the devoted. But no matter how you look at it, LCD are one of the definitive indie artists of our time, and their return is as much a reason to anticipate what else James Murphy & co. may be able to achieve as it is to revisit the classics they left behind when they first disbanded.
Last week, Bloomsbury Academic announced the surprise release of a new entry in their 33? series on LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver, calling LCD’s 2016 reunion a “perfect time for a serious, in-depth examination of this important record, and of LCD Soundsystem’s influence on and contributions to the landscape of contemporary popular music.” Stereogum Contributing Editor Ryan Leas wrote it, and the book includes two pieces he wrote for us in the past. Today, we have the first excerpt from his 33?, from a chapter that discusses the changes in New York’s music scene in the ’00s, the conflicted 21st century NYC rock album, and Sound Of Silver’s role in that.
James Murphy was, of course, one of those New Yorker transplants that was very proud of having become a New Yorker and ditching his small town roots. One of the most obvious examples of this pride is earlier in LCD’s career, in “Yr City’s A Sucker.” It’s another LCD song that sonically captures city life — a floaty synth line hanging in the fog above a loping, shambling swagger of a beat. The tone of it is performatively snide. So much of the lyric is built around Murphy hammering away at one pointed sentiment: “Your city’s a sucker/My city’s a creep.” It’s a classic New Yorker idea — our city’s better because we have to put up with so much shit. Your city’s soft, ours is hard. Your city’s sensible, ours is deranged.
There is snarky pride in proclaiming “My city’s a creep.” Then he follows it with a bunch of half-finished rebukes to other city-dwellers. “You have so much more space/In which to/In which to/Ha ha ha ha,” he sings, before adding, “You have so much more time/With which you/With which you/ Ha ha ha ha.” He’s playing into everyone else’s most-hated New Yorker stereotype. It goes back to that John Updike quote: “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” And, I mean, sometimes it’s not such a secret belief. With “Yr City’s A Sucker,” Murphy went all-in on that brand of deluded New Yorker hubris.
There’s only one issue. As much as Murphy could joke about other cities by refusing to complete the insult, the joke is really on New Yorkers in the 21st century. The superiority complex he’s playing with in “Yr City’s A Sucker” is rooted in the same outmoded ideas of the city that all those bands with their borrowed nostalgia were so enamored with. New York isn’t a creep anymore. There’s no sense of this city being harder and weirder, where all the freaks still congregate. Maybe Murphy still had a version of that New York when he wrote “Yr City’s A Sucker.” Or maybe he was in on that joke on ourselves, the same way he was in on the tragic line of joking in “Losing My Edge.”
This is why the Strokes’ generation have aged into looking like weird echoes of the past. That kind of sneer, that posturing, was derived from a New York that was strange and edgy and bloody. Yet any corner that a white, successful artist like Murphy occupied by the end of last decade was decidedly none of those things. Now, the boast you can make to other cities is that somehow you put up with enough to be able to stay here in the face of insane living expenses. The secret to a song like “Yr City’s A Sucker” is that its city pride is fueled almost purely by mythos at this point. As New Yorkers, we can hang our history over the heads of other cities, so we can cover up how goddamn irritating it can be to live here now, as the surroundings become ever more unrecognizable and untenable. “New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent,” Murphy quipped in “North American Scum,” only a few years later. Wahoo, North America.
Of course, he acknowledged all these New York contradictions in one of the most pivotal LCD songs: “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” After an album of effusive, epic songs and various emotional peaks and valleys, Sound Of Silver ends with the disillusioned cabaret coda of “New York, I Love You…” As the epilogue to the poster-child record for the era of the conflicted NYC rock album, “New York, I Love You…” is the anthem for a certain generation of young, artistic New Yorkers. It sums up the love/hate relationship with New York that makes “Yr City’s A Sucker,” in hindsight, come across as a kneejerk and veiled defense against those pesky doubts creeping up inside so many of us who live here.
It’s all right there in the title, of course, that double-bind attitude towards living in New York. Murphy expounds upon it over the course of the song in a series of biting couplets. “Like a rat in a cage/Pulling minimum wage,” Murphy starts, quickly leading up to “New York, you’re safer/And you’re wasting my time,” in two lines capturing all the angst that comes with a city that you were sold on being one thing, only to find a more mundane and expensive one in its place. “So the boring collect/I mean all disrespect/In the neighborhood bars/I’d once dreamt I would drink,” he says later, alluding to both the feeling of moving here and finding an imitation New York after you’d been chasing that dream for so many suburban years, as well as the feeling of living here for some time and seeing your version of New York slip away in front of your eyes. Ultimately, though, our toxic relationships with the places we live, especially this place, win out. “But you’re still the one pool/Where I’d happily drown” is the last thing Murphy sings before the song breaks into its sharpened, intensified conclusion.
It’s one final paradox on an album full of them. The destructive relationship of New York to the New Yorker. Though it’s hyper-specific, it remains one of the more beautiful resolutions on the album. After all the mess, and five years spent this or that way, and losing someone great, or becoming innocuous, or whatever other experiential maelstrom you’ve collected as you’ve aged, you can still come home to this, your abusive adopted city. The idea that even in whatever plasticized New York we’ve got now, it’s still one of the great cities in the world, and it’s worth putting up with all its flaws.
There are likely plenty of people who don’t care about LCD who don’t care about that belief, and likely plenty of fans elsewhere in the country or in the world who don’t, either. To me, it approaches some larger significance. It’s an artist re-committing to their identity and finding something to say about the world and human experience at large by observing whatever’s happening down their street. It’s an artist acknowledging the threat of being buried under the history of a tradition but finding a way to work into it and stake your territory.
It’s also perhaps one of the clearest ways LCD’s first run will be dated. There have already been jokes about how the “mild billionaire mayor” who’s “now convinced he’s a king” had left office by the time LCD reunited. But James Murphy lived here all throughout that first run of LCD, and his experiences here filtered into work that allowed him to convey some of the most relatable truths about human experience in all its pointlessness and sometimes-beauty and crushing normalcy. He still lives in New York; he even opened a wine bar in a neighborhood that could have been eulogized in “New York, I Love You…” Maybe that is reason for skepticism that Murphy will have as sharp an eye during this second round. But Sound Of Silver is a New York album that is also a timeless album. Almost ten years on, it still feels like a living document capturing the experience of my generation — in cities, as struggling artists, as people trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Chances are, Murphy has more to say to us.
The Sound Of Silver 33? is available now from Bloomsbury.