Premature Evaluation: LCD Soundsystem American Dream
“American dream.” What a loaded phrase. What a loaded fucking phrase. The phrase “American dream” went from ideal to joke so long ago that it might once again be an ideal — one that, for just about everyone, is hopelessly out of reach. Right now, America is a confusing clusterfuck of concentrated wealth, bad faith, omnidirectional anger, and all-encompassing uncertainty. There’s a second civil war happening, and it’s only happening on computer screens. Nothing makes any sense. But James Murphy is one of the rare few who actually is living out some kind of American dream success story. Once upon a time, he was the sound guy for Providence noise-rockers Six Finger Satellite. And then he rose above his station. Through talent and will and timing and megalomania and insanely deep musical knowledge, he went from that to DJ, to producer, to label head, to frontman of a band who came to epitomize a very particular moment and flavor of New York cool. He earned himself an iconic moment when he sold out Madison Square Garden and broke up his band in the process. He earned himself the right to be taken seriously even when he’s talking in loony rich-guy coke dreams about, say, remixing the tones of New York’s subway turnstiles so they’ll be more aesthetically pleasing. And now he’s back to the band he couldn’t leave alone, and he’s feeling reflective.
On the cover of American Dream, LCD Soundsystem’s fourth album, the phrase itself shines down from an unnaturally blue sky, like a propaganda poster that might hang, unnoticed and unloved, on the wall of some bland functionary office. It’s an ideal reduced to pure abstraction. And Murphy spends a whole lot of time on American Dream digging into the idea of what an ideal like that might mean, especially as it becomes meaningless. He’s written before, on “North American Scum” and “Pow Pow,” about what it means to be American. But he doesn’t get into that on American Dream. Instead, it’s an album about the idea of a dream, and about the reality of knowing that a dream is just a dream. “Look what happened when you were dreaming,” he sings on the album’s title track. “And then punch yourself in the face.”
That title track opens with a vignette of sorts. Murphy, singing in the second person, imagines someone — “you” — waking up in someone else’s bed, coming down off of acid, trying to get your thoughts in order: “Oh, the revolution was here / That would free you from these bourgeoisie / In the morning, everything’s clearer / When the sunlight exposes your age.” And there it is: “Your age.” Murphy, older than anyone else in his scene even when he debuted, has been singing about aging since we met him. It’s probably LCD Soundsystem’s great subject. “Losing My Edge” was about aging. “All My Friends” was about aging. And American Dream is very much about aging. It’s an album about taking stock, about looking at your own place in the world rather than the world itself.
Musically, American Dream is a gorgeous fucking record. Compared to the other three LCD albums, I expect that it’ll be a slow-bloomer; there’s very little of the sharp, immediate urgency that you could hear in some of those older records. The frenetic clatter of “Movement” or “Us V Them” is almost entirely gone. Instead, it’s an album of textures and sighs. It’s not a slow or pretentious or boring album; Murphy wouldn’t allow himself to make one of those. Murphy’s control-freak tendencies are well-documented; his whole career is almost a fascinating thought-experiment about what might happen if a bandleader as stubborn and dictatorial as, say, James Brown applied himself fully to making record-nerd esoterica. So he makes good and certain that every sound on American Dream is fully on-point. Every drum kicks hard, every synth hums with physical electricity, every guitar twitches just so. But American Dream is still a heady, expansive album. No song is shorter than five minutes. And it sounds like he’s pursuing infinity on some of these tracks — like he’s actually setting controls for the heart of the sun, not just singing about it.
It’s not hard to trace the influences on American Dream. The underground cult-hero names that Murphy rattled off on “Losing My Edge” are in the rearview mirror now. Instead, he’s stomping with the big dogs. The vocal echoes on “How Do You Sleep?” seem precisely calibrated to make you think of Station To Station-era Bowie, and “Change Yr Mind” has all the theatrically fidgety paranoia of the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. Artists like that — canonical artists, pieces of the firmament — are Murphy’s out-of-time contemporaries, the people who he wants to both honor and equal. House music is in there, too, and Murphy has become a master at deploying those sounds, at bringing in the four-on-the-floor thump at the exact right moment.
I say “Murphy” rather than “LCD Soundsystem” because American Dream is close to being a solo record. Murphy has surrounded himself with these world-class musicians, this ridiculously tight little ensemble that comports itself like one big rhythm section, but he’d still prefer to do everything himself. The other members of LCD Soundsystem, Al Doyle in particular, have co-writing credits on some of the songs from American Dream, and Nancy Whang sings one verse from “Other Voices,” but this is still unmistakably Murphy’s show. The liner notes make it clear that Murphy is playing most of the instruments himself, that he’s only bringing in his bandmates when he has to. Plenty of the time, only one or two bandmates will contribute to the original songs, and they’ll only play an instrument or two while Murphy handles the vast majority of the sounds. (The liner notes helpfully describe the makes and models of synths that he plays; gearheads will be very happy with it.) Live, LCD Soundsystem are still very much a band, and having seen them last month, I can confirm that they will still cave your skull in. But on record, this is a one-man show.
And that one man has been living in his own head these past few years, since he got off of the road. In all the interviews he’s given around American Dream’s release, Murphy describes in detail the sort of overthinking that went into him breaking up the band in the first place. He’s talked about it as a lark, as a pissed-off response to a promoter who didn’t think he could sell out Madison Square Garden by himself. But he’s also talked about his discomfort with the idea of becoming too famous and of becoming uncool in the process — of hitting the point in his career arc that so many past great bands have hit. He won’t have to worry about that now; I can’t picture any of the songs on American Dream becoming hits in anything but the most internetty ways. But those songs still hit hard. They resonate.
Take “Tonite.” Murphy recently told New York, “I’m not a big-topic guy. I tend to like writing about things that are small or personal.” But “Tonite” is about nothing less than the place of music in the world; it’s just written from a place that’s very specific. (Maybe that’s the “small or personal” part.) Murphy looks out at a world where all the hit songs are about the immediate moment, about tonight and not tomorrow. Same as it ever was. But having experienced a few tomorrows, Murphy is able to look at all of that with the confusion that only wisdom can bring: “All the hits are saying the same thing / It’s only tonite, tonite, tonite, tonite / Man, life is finite / But shit, it feels like forever.” He doesn’t have any answers, but he does have plenty of icily composed, perfectly worded verbal darts: “these bullying children of the fabulous, raffling off limited-edition shoes.” Before he can go on too long, he interrupts himself: “Oh good gracious, I sound like my mom.” All this over muscular squirm-funk with a starry-eyed talkbox hook and a metronomically precise sense of construction. And it all leads up to a conclusion that’s moving in its simplicity:
You who’ve been badgered and taunted and told that
You’re missing a party that you’ll never get over
You hate the idea that you’re wasting your youth
That you stood in the background, oh, until you got older
But that’s all lies
That’s all lies
That idea — that every moment matters and that you didn’t waste anything — pervades the album. “Emotional Haircut” is a forceful conga-thunder bulldozer of a song, and the way it assesses the passing of time is so stark and real: “You got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete / And you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat.” And the patient, strutting “I Used To” opens with a scene of youth and introverted innocence: “I used to dance alone of my own volition / I used to wait all night for the rock transmissions.” Murphy is a passionate, precise writer, and even when I can’t tell what he’s singing about, he clearly means it. The slow-swooning nine-minute “How Do You Sleep?,” maybe my favorite song on the album, is a sharp missive to some other person, a direct communication, and I can’t tell who Murphy’s singing to or what, exactly, he’s singing about: “You warned me about the cocaine, then dove straight in.” And then, a minute later, “Standing on the shore, getting old / You left me here with the vape clowns.” I have no idea what the specifics of that might mean, but come on, vape clowns? That’s fucking great.
And then there’s the sprawling, haunted 12-minute closer “Black Screen” — another personal missive, but one with a context that’s a whole lot clearer. Murphy never says his name on the song, and I don’t think he’s talked about it in any interviews, but it’s pretty clear that “Black Screen” is a song about David Bowie, Murphy’s late hero, friend, and collaborator. Murphy came into Bowie’s life late and worked with him on a couple of Bowie’s final records. On the song, he sings about how unreal and fulfilling and beautiful it was to get to know the man: “The time I wrote to you from the island / Your quick replies made me high.” He also sings about being nervous to take up too much of his time, missing chances to see more of him, about regretting things: “I had fear in the room / So I stopped turning up / My hands kept pushing down in my pockets / I’m bad with people things, but I should have tried more.”
It’s almost an answer record to Blackstar, the David Bowie goodbye album. Murphy made some small contributions to that album, but he wasn’t a big part of it. And now he sings about seeing Bowie nowhere and everywhere: “You could be anywhere on the black screen.” And after he sings that line, and repeats it a few times, the music just thrums wordlessly for the next few minutes, probably a more fitting tribute to the man who Murphy calls “between a friend and a father” than any words Murphy could’ve written.
It’s a complicated song about complicated feelings. Murphy got the incomparable thrill of getting to know Bowie, of getting to work with him, something that many of us would’ve sold our souls to do. He also got the sadness of watching the man deteriorate firsthand: “Couldn’t make our wedding day / Too sick to travel.” And he gets the regret of knowing that he could’ve been closer with the man, that it’s his own fault that he wasn’t — a feeling you probably know if you’ve ever lost someone you admire. (In a way, “Black Screen” reminds me of Kanye West’s “Big Brother,” with a couple of huge distinctions: Murphy’s feelings toward Bowie the man are only affectionate, not conflicted, and Kanye at least knew Jay-Z would get to hear his song.) What Murphy got to do in his life, getting to know his idol, that is an American dream. And now he has to live in its lingering, dissipating aftermath. Murphy will never say this publicly, but I wonder if the reason he got LCD Soundsystem back together was because he only knows how to express a feeling like that through music. But it’s a hell of a feeling, and now he’s made a hell of an album about it.
American Dream is out 9/1 on Columbia.