Sounding Board

Lost Edge: LCD Soundsystem’s Road To Sincerity

Just over 15 years ago, James Murphy released the first LCD Soundsystem single, “Losing My Edge.” Its role in the band’s mythology is foundational. A now-infamous screed of flamboyant snark and cool-guy posturing, “Losing My Edge” climaxed with James Murphy rushing against the song and its narrative, pouring out a stream of cultish music touchstones in order to prove his credentials. It was performative, for sure, and it was taking the piss out of an existing culture of holier-than-thou music nerds and record store clerks while also taking the piss out of a nascent culture of retro-fetishization via its “I was there” litany. Which is to say: It was Murphy taking the piss out of himself and everyone else.

As far as examples of a band introducing themselves with a debut single or album that fully establishes their identity and their concerns and what’s special about them, “Losing My Edge” is one of the big ones. With the rise of the ’00s indie bands and Brooklyn as a 21st century signifier in youth culture, there was a steady flow of trend pieces about “hipster” culture and “irony,” even as many New York indie bands favored a heart-on-sleeve style of songwriting far removed from the cool detachment associated with the city’s past rock greats from the Strokes back to Talking Heads and Blondie back to the Velvet Underground. With “Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem announced themselves as the torchbearers for that old NYC sneer and an attitude rooted in the politics of coolness and relevance. Retro-fetishization, ironic detachment, an aloof yet hyper-observant and hyper-critical pose — James Murphy had it all.

“Losing My Edge” told you all you needed to know. Or, at least, it seemed to. LCD were the cool kids, or the people concerned with the idea of the cool kids, and what’s cool, and what’s lame. Ever since, the concepts of coolness and relevance were prominent in the music, the interviews, the narrative of the band. Yet that wasn’t, and isn’t, all that’s there. Through much of their initial phase, LCD straddled two polarities, starting as what would appear to be the pinnacle of opinionated hipsterdom, then gradually letting more personal songs creep out. That is: As LCD continued, Murphy started to lower his defenses. And his band has changed a lot as a result.

It was a journey that at one point seemed to reach its conclusion with the middle-aged, blown-out comedown of 2010’s This Is Happening. But now they have a new album, American Dream. It opens a new chapter for LCD Soundsystem by both building and departing from the roots and legacy that, for a brief five years, once appeared solidified in the story of indie music in the 21st century. It’s the record that marks Murphy’s final and near-complete abandonment of his original approach. In unexpected ways, it’s the most genuine, earnest album of Murphy’s career.

That isn’t to say that the real James Murphy wasn’t present before, or that there weren’t real emotions roiling behind that ironic facade. Underlying “Losing My Edge,” of course, was Murphy’s actual anxiety, him worrying about already being over the hill. He was 32 when it came out, and the whole engine of the song is the perspective of an aging hipster seeing his oncoming obsolescence. There’s a lot going on in that track. That real anxiety — I’m older and I haven’t done anything real — legitimized it, elevating what would’ve otherwise been a funny hipster rant that would’ve been likelier to live on as a piece of early ’00s ephemera. Instead, it served as a perfect mission statement for the first phase of LCD Soundsystem: dissecting coolness and our interactions with pop culture while reckoning with real concerns like growing older and (maybe?) maturing would become pillars of Murphy’s project. Back then, though, he kept a shield up, couching what was really going on with him within an idea song, a narrative song, a song that could be talked about so that, on some level, he could keep the listener at bay.

Three years later, he delivered the self-titled LCD debut. In essence, it was him acting out “Losing My Edge” over the course of an entire record. There isn’t much meaning behind the songs on LCD Soundsystem, per se — at least, not in the sense of lyrical or personal content from Murphy. They’re just good songs that sound great. Across the album, Murphy tried on various genres and voices, basically embarking on discrete musical exercises now that he found, hey, he could actually do this thing. Arriving right in the middle of the ’00s, it in hindsight feels like a turning point — one of the albums marking the shift from early ’00s Lower East Side retro-rock to late ’00s Williamsburg indie rock — but it’s tonally similar to what preceded it. Murphy was still enmeshed in the politics of coolness on LCD Soundsystem. These songs were often excellent—“Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” “Tribulations,” and “Movement” remain LCD classics, alongside non-album cuts of the era like “Yeah (Crass Version)” — but they didn’t give you much of a glimpse at Murphy himself. They were a pose, a smokescreen. LCD was still more of a conceptual project than a vehicle for sincere musical expression.

Then things started to get a little more complicated. When it came time to follow the debut, Murphy actually felt pressure — now, there was something to maintain. The result, Sound Of Silver, is still his masterpiece. At first glance, it had plenty of the same trappings of LCD Soundsystem. Genre collision unfolded into dance songs like “Get Innocuous!” and rock songs like “North American Scum,” many still in that vein of being sonically cool and, in effect, semi-removed. Even a song like “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” which obviously came from personal experience with a specific time in a specific place, came across similarly to “Losing My Edge” and “Daft Punk Is Playing In My House” — Murphy still adopted the position of a commentator from on high, outside and able to judge.

But then there was the one-two punch of “Someone Great” and “All My Friends.” On an album full of addictive grooves and catchy songs, there were two towering behemoths, emotional works that wound up being the kind of songs people could find themselves in. “All My Friends” was the more relatable successor to the aging anxieties in “Losing My Edge,” now in the form of an anthem that, 10 years later, turns a concert crowd into a jubilant, jumping mass, screaming along to every word with, well, their friends. At the time, Murphy still felt discomfort about that possibility. He had misgivings about “All My Friends,” considering it too poppy and “cloying.” There had to be tossed-off one-liners in the mix to balance out its pathos. It had to be surrounded by songs that were still just about sounding good rather than saying anything.

This was, partially, rooted in the fact that Murphy didn’t necessarily find himself to be a “voice.” He didn’t think he had something to say, exactly, but knew he could make cool-sounding albums. On Sound Of Silver, he began to truly show that not only could he make people dance, but he could also make them feel a lot of things. He could write the type of songs that had people raising their arms, overwhelmed with emotion, as the first note rang out in a club or over a festival field. Fittingly for a project that was really about aesthetic initially, you could always write meaning onto LCD in an analytical, pop history kind of way. Then, Murphy started to produce art that was imbued with layers of meaning on its own, before listeners brought their own set of thoughts and experiences to it.

In 2010, This Is Happening closed what wound up being the first LCD trilogy, a cohesive set of albums that take you through the first decade of the 21st century and through the first active phase of LCD’s existence. Theoretically, the more direct communication Murphy had toyed with — in the sense that he was writing emotive songs; there was still plenty left up to interpretation in those lyrics — blossomed on LCD’s third album. There were deeply effecting songs like “I Can Change” and “Home.” But the pose wasn’t entirely dropped. Just look at the chic ’80s-indebted cover of the album. Just listen to the songs. You can point to the one that sounds like “White Light/White Heat” (“Drunk Girls”), the one that sounds like “Heroes” (“All I Want”), and the one that sounds like “Nightclubbing” (“Somebody’s Calling Me”). He’s talking about a goddamn Village Voice critic on “Pow Pow.” The musical exercises are still there, crowding out moments of sonic euphoria like “Dance Yrself Clean” or moments of surprising poignance (“Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut/ It comes back, but it’s never the same”) or the moments that teetered on confessional (“I Can Change”).

But the project that started as “musical ideas about musical ideas” was still that by the time Murphy ushered them into premature retirement. This was Murphy going for the big, excessive rock record archetype, a little shadowed beneath the eyes from time and everything that comes with it, but gigantic sounding nonetheless. In a recent interview with Vulture, he admitted that this, indeed, was the arc of the first three LCD albums:

What’s interesting for me about making this record is that the first LCD singles were just about allowing myself to make dance music. The first album was about letting myself try a couple of different types of music and call it an album without worrying about whether the whole thing cohered. Then Sound of Silver was me pushing myself to be a little stranger and make something cohesive. The third album was about trying to have a crazy rock-and-roll experience while making a record — renting a mansion and living like a crazy person with everyone dressing in white dashikis while we made it.

So, anyway, that brings us to American Dream.

***

By the time LCD Soundsystem concluded their initial trilogy, the indie landscape was far different. The kind of posturing Murphy had indulged earlier in LCD’s run was out of vogue. When This Is Happening came out, indie rock was deep into a phase of overall earnestness, and Murphy could get emotional onstage at what was then their goodbye show. Seven years later, who knows where things are. Pop culture feels like a free-for-all, with everything happening at once. But emerging from years of silence and a reunion tour, the new LCD Soundsystem album marks a new turning point for the band. The old angles, the old fixation on coolness — that’s pretty much completely gone for the first time. American Dream in turn plays like the delayed endpoint, or new beginning, from where LCD started.

The first previews of American Dream were misleading. The singles all hinted at what could’ve been an entirely different LCD reunion album, perhaps the one we all might’ve expected: a sort of retread or extension of past glories, of old favorites, playing out like an imagined new collection of greatest hits. “Tonite” is like a glossier, mellowed-out “Losing My Edge,” all stuttering rhythm and State Of Things diatribes, but shot through with This Is Happening laser synths. “American Dream,” similarly, sounded like the “New York, I Love You…” of the bunch, just gauzier and more lush. “Call The Police” felt like something new in that it’s a rock epic dissimilar from most of LCD’s catalog, but that also meant it was the 2017 answer to “All My Friends.” It might not have the same narrative impact, but the pulse is there. It has the same ignition and ascension.

All were great. But to detractors, these songs could’ve suggested a new phase of LCD musical exercises: Murphy trying on different hats with each song, hats that once belonged to him on older songs. But that’s not what American Dream is. While This Is Happening had hinted at what a middle-aged LCD could really sound like, post-pastiche, American Dream is the work of Murphy with all his old guards down. It often plays like a collection of his most personal songs, even in moments where that doesn’t seem to be the case on the surface.

The first surprise is how the album begins. In the past, Murphy always opened with a banger. “Daft Punk,” “Get Innocuous!,” “Dance Yrself Clean” — all of these are, in some form, party songs. “Oh Baby” is something very different. A vaporous piece of synth-pop, it floats and thrums with Murphy cooing in a smaller voice throughout. It’s still infectious, for sure, with those big bass synth notes reminiscent of how a groove still anchored the similarly meditative “Someone Great.” But there’s no break into a big LCD refrain, there’s no switch to something more fun. It’s just a beautiful, haunted track that sets the stage for the album that follows. Like the uncomfortable faux-pleasantness of American Dream’s much-discussed cover, it’s those fake plastic clouds parting to let flickers of light in. What follows is, at turns, often the most reflective and certainly the darkest LCD album to date.

Overall, the tone that dominates American Dream is one of brooding and bleakness unlike anything Murphy’s delved into consistently before. Sure, “Other Voices” is something like the “Us V Them” of this album, but it’s nervier, gnarlier. With melted guitar lines and a few seasick melodies, it comes across like a jittery, drugged-up echo of those polyrhythmic epics on Remain In Light. The whole first half of the album becomes somewhat unrelenting. “I Used To” is a pretty synth-pop song but it has a churn and a sadness that overpowers any impulse you might have to dance to it. “Change Yr Mind” is slightly less dramatic, but the way it co-opts the haywire directions of Bowie’s Lodger era makes it this album’s equivalent of the guy sulking in the corner, smoking a cigarette inside.

What’s most striking on first listen is the album’s centerpiece, “How Do You Sleep?” It begins with echoing drums and a lacerating violin part and Murphy calling out, reverbed into faraway ghostliness as he sings about standing on the shore, looking to another place and another time. It has hints of the Cure or some of Echo & The Bunnymen’s weirder songs, and it becomes one of the most unique LCD songs even while it does exactly what you’d expect it to. You can feel the drop approaching — it’s like a physical programming, you know it’s coming — and it does happen, but there’s no release. When the beats and synth stabs erupt, all it does is ratchet up the tension of the song. It’s a bizarre listening experience: If they were stitched into another LCD song, all those customary elements like the cowbell and the synth riff and the layered chant outro could feel as celebratory as past LCD epics. Not here.

LCD guitarist Al Doyle apparently described “How Do You Sleep?” as “‘Dance Yrself Clean’ for the worst year ever,” which is very apt. There’s never been a LCD song that sounded so straight-up foreboding, or one that has all the crescendoes you’re looking for, yet deployed in such an aggressive manner. In terms of what it all means, as American Dream’s snarling nine-minute turning point, it’s clearly a conflicted account of a fractured friendship, and it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t about Murphy’s former partner Tim Goldsworthy, especially when you consider Murphy’s penchant for referencing music history and the fact that John Lennon once wrote a similarly acerbic track called “How Do You Sleep?” directed at Paul McCartney. The song is a constantly intensifying storm, climaxing with a final proclamation of the end of things from Murphy: “And if I see you/It’s like nothing went wrong/And if we meet again tomorrow/Just like nothing went wrong/But there I go/Erasing our chances/Just by asking/How do you sleep?” It’s the one evocation of the title, and the song takes it time getting there, ensuring all the anger and anguish Murphy’s accumulated over the song are poured into those four words.

From the gleaming and yearning way “Oh Baby” begins the album, “Black Screen” then bookends it with another spaced-out synth odyssey that definitely seems to be about Murphy’s lost hero and friend, David Bowie. In between the two, and amongst all those darker songs, there are moments of levity, too. “Tonite” is a left turn after “How Do You Sleep?,” a restart for the album’s second half. “Call The Police” is unabashedly anthemic in a way that could only come with time, with Murphy having grown more comfortable than he was when he wrote “All My Friends.” Yet regardless of musical directions from song to song, the through line is that it all feels serious.

Murphy grapples with a lot of topics across the album, many of which are classic LCD tropes that become heavier with seven extra years and less cathartic music behind them. When Murphy sings “And my love life stumbles on” in “Oh Baby,” it’s a world-weary addendum to the plea of “I Can Change.” Murphy’s fixation on age is also present all over American Dream, but it’s re-calibrated. He’s far from the guy who stressed over that within the framework of cool points or the prospect of looking absurd onstage in his mid-40s. The years have now piled up, and Murphy spends much of the album sifting through them.

“I Used To” is a litany of patterns and places long lost, an open-ended title previewing Murphy’s impressionistic snapshots of his younger years throughout the song. “I used to dance alone of my own volition/I used to wait all night for the rock transmissions” Murphy sings at the beginning of the song, continuing the pattern later with “I used to see your hands in their weird positions/Used to like your hair when you watched musicians.” They are both intricate, small details and opaque, Murphy channeling people and images from his own life that also register as broad representations of time having passed. The tone isn’t wistful like he used to be. It’s almost mournful. “That’s all gone,” he proclaims in one chorus, before singing “I’m still trying to wake up” at the song’s conclusion; it’s not anxiety about growing older, but rather the exhaustion of dreams and visions of the past as unwanted anchors.

A sense of mortality in general hangs over the record, naturally present in “Black Screen” but even appearing in a seemingly jocular track like “Emotional Haircut,” where Murphy sings “You got numbers on your phone of your dead that you cannot delete.” In the former, Murphy certainly appears to be addressing Bowie directly, characterizing their relationship (“You fell between a friend and a father”), reminiscing about the shock of getting to know his hero (“The time I wrote to you from the island/Your quick replies made me high”), kicking himself for not being around more (“I had fear in the rooms/So I stopped turning up”). Even kept abstract and sung through a processed vocal, the lyrics are just about as naked as Murphy’s ever been in a song, offering a broken, human narrative in the humming, digitized haze of the album’s finale. After it, the long instrumental drift at the end of “Black Screen” feels like not just one last tribute to the subject of the song, but to all the people and moments and experiences referenced across American Dream, lost in the detritus of the decades.

The way Murphy shows his age is there even in the quippier moments. “Tonite” takes loose stock of the airwaves, but it’s almost disinterested compared to the quick-talking “Losing My Edge,” culminating in Murphy dismissing that whole obsession of youth and how you’re spending or wasting it with the finality of the song’s “That’s all lies” non-refrain. “Call The Police” doesn’t seem like it’s about any one thing, but within its rush and all the catchy but semi-nonsensical asides, there are lyrics like “See, mother was a cripple/ And my father was a drunk but gentle man/ So we do the best we can.” The overarching effect is that the album feels like it has gravity, like this version of Murphy is a guy who’s grown older and wiser and is taking on the ideas and topics necessary if you’re going to come out with an album with a name like American Dream.

All of it is at once what would’ve been the previously unexpected but also semi-inevitable end destination if any new iteration of LCD Soundsystem was to be impactful and not simply come across like a shallow revival. Pop music doesn’t have to be a young man’s game. But the early LCD stuff, songs like “Losing My Edge” or “New York, I Love You…”, the material that was so concerned with a “scene” or with relevance? That does have to be a young man’s game by its very nature. If you keep that up too long into middle-age, it’s embarrassing.

It’s something Murphy himself acknowledged in a recent New York Times interview. Referencing advice from Bowie that a LCD reunion should make Murphy uncomfortable, and that’s exactly why he should do it, he said that he “quickly realized that a wry wit from a distance would, at this point, be self-parody and a crutch. To try to sing more and to let go, to a certain degree, of my ironic distance was a terrifying thing and the best use of ‘you should be uncomfortable’ that I could make.”

Yes, “All My Friends” is a song about aging, written by a man in the latter half of his 30s. But it is also a song that subtly and unintentionally captured what it’s like to be alive, in this century, for people of any age; it’s a song that tapped into human emotions more eternal and fundamental than those rooted in the rather singular perspective of a 37 year old man working on his second, soon-to-be-acclaimed album.

That’s the LCD Soundsystem, the James Murphy, that exists on American Dream. This time, they’re completely beyond who’s in and who’s out in a particular scene, in a particular moment. Because LCD Soundsystem itself is well beyond that. They’re the establishment, as discomforting as that may have once felt to them. They are a group that new, 20-something fans might discover and relate to, but they are just as, or probably more, appealing to greying classic rock heads. The New York that birthed Murphy as an artist, that once thrived with competing viewpoints and sounds and dispositions ripe for battle lines to be drawn in a LCD song — that’s long gone. And if it wasn’t, Murphy owns a wine bar in Williamsburg, so who would he be to comment on it anymore?

Murphy used to talk about not wanting to write about big ideas. That’s from back when he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of himself as a musician, that he had a viewpoint people needed to hear. To get to a point where LCD could be considered one of the greats, Murphy had to get over that. Some time away helped, too, if you’re thinking about legacy and all that. But for Murphy as a person, the growth that yielded the songs on American Dream is crucial. It’s what makes the album exciting, and what makes the prospect of more new LCD Soundsystem music beyond it exciting. Maybe he was being coy with those old quotes about big or small ideas; “All My Friends” and “Home” found their way to more universal places anyway. But even though there are plenty of idiosyncratic, specific details on American Dream, the whole thing feels bigger, more open, more emotive than in the past. It casts a state-of-a-generation track like “Losing My Edge” in smallness in hindsight. Murphy is beyond being tied to one scene or time or city, and he’s beyond writing that way. American Dream is LCD Soundsystem without a pose; it’s LCD Soundsystem as Big Artist making a Big Album. This time, Murphy isn’t holding anything back, he isn’t hiding behind anything. This time, he’s gunning for the pantheon.