Once upon a time, This Is Happening was a perfect grand finale.
James Murphy wrote himself a perfect story in general. It began with one flawless single, an exercise in meta self-laceration grappling with a belated career and a feverish obsession with music history and concepts of coolness. Then came a debut album that flitted between scrappy-yet-precise approximations of the references laid out in that prologue-manifesto. Then a sophomore album that became just a touch more personal and earnest, yet remained wry, all while the music became more fully realized — when Murphy actually bested some of those retro inspirations, when he refined a sound built from dense 21st century perceptual overload and that “borrowed nostalgia,” when he wrote a handful of genuinely moving songs and one generational anthem.
That second album, 2007’s Sound Of Silver, already cast a long shadow by the time This Is Happening came along. James Murphy had told a good story, and now he found himself as a real musician with a real band and the real task of following up what would soon rank as one of the definitive albums of its time. He had to write the final scene.
This Is Happening, that eventual successor to Sound Of Silver, arrived 10 years ago this Sunday. For months, Murphy had already been telling any publication that would listen — which, at that moment in the band’s career, was pretty much every publication — that it would be the final LCD album. “It seems simple to me,” he told the Guardian. “It just feels like this should be the last one.”
You can find variations on that sentiment in most of the press surrounding This Is Happening, with certain recurring justifications: Murphy was always too old to be doing this (a point that had fueled much of his most successful material), but he supposedly had never wanted to do LCD past 40. He wanted to embark on other creative endeavors without the usual album-cycle record-business patterns, and he doubted the future stability of the major label apparatus or LCD’s place in that ecosystem. And he wanted to stop it all before it got too big — he had taken LCD far further than he or anyone else had once plausibly imagined possible, and it was time to go out on top rather than continue working the same formula until it was bled dry.
Everything about This Is Happening functions like a knowing conclusion, an artist going all-in one more time. Having set up a temporary studio in LA, Murphy & co. decamped for the West Coast. Despite how easy it is to picture debauched sessions and an old-school rock ‘n’ roll documentary in the making, they (supposedly) focused mainly on this big album in front of them. They returned with something that was expansive and glistening, something with a sheen and muscularity to match the preordained momentousness of the occasion.
As sharp as the vision, commentary, and songwriting were in past LCD endeavors, This Is Happening had the sound of a big-budget leap to the major leagues. It’s the sound of someone being in the position to take the money and run, essentially, and fully grasping for the ambitious, excessive Big Work the moment called for. It was also the sound of someone who knew what those albums sounded like, someone who knew exactly what kind of album they were making.
While having one foot in dance culture meant plenty of old LCD songs stretched into outer space, almost everything on This Is Happening sprawled out like never before — meaning the structures of the songs themselves, but also Murphy’s viewpoint and the band’s dazzling array of synth sounds. The album was just nine songs but over an hour long; only the goofy lead single “Drunk Girls” clocked in at under four minutes. (Most of the songs barreled well past seven.)
If this was Murphy’s last hurrah, there were a whole lot of ideas to cram in there. That meant that certain creative tendencies and thematic concerns were fully unleashed, like Murphy’s sifting through and recalibration of the past, including iconic songs. There are some explicit echoes littered throughout. He wrote his own “Heroes” in “All I Want” while mimicking Robert Fripp’s guitar; listening to “Somebody’s Calling Me,” you keep expecting to hear the airstrike drones from “Nightclubbing.” Though it reflects it less directly, “Home” was his own personal “This Must Be The Place” — one of the most bare and wistful songs in an often arch and cerebral career, its fluttering and chirping synths offering comfort against his aloof and angular predilection.
At the same time, Murphy took LCD’s own idioms to their most crowd-pleasing extremes, or offered new takes on them. The hits on This Is Happening stand tall in Murphy’s career. It all began with “Dance Yrself Clean,” a monolithic opener and a masterful exercise in building and releasing tension. Destined for countless college parties and climactic festival sets, it perhaps remains LCD’s purest engagement with true euphoria. Murphy finally went fully, unabashedly new wave on “I Can Change”; cannily aware of forms and tropes once more, he leaned back on a lovelorn, romantic genre for a real-time tale of relationship collapse sung over lush synths. It’s still one of the poppiest, catchiest songs Murphy’s ever written.
“You Wanted A Hit” was a drawn-out, simmering meditation that could be understood as another meta commentary on his own status as an artist; it’d reach new heights of drama onstage. Then there was “Home,” not entirely resolved but perhaps the quintessential denouement for LCD, blending the danceable with the poignant with the self-interrogating. One last conversation between Murphy and himself that listeners could still fill with their own specific meanings.
No one LCD album is perfect — though Sound Of Silver got damn close — and on This Is Happening, the chasm between the now well-established LCD classics and the lesser-remembered songs feels more vast than on his other albums. Some are better than you might recall, like the malfunctioning robo-freakout of “One Touch,” while others either feel like also-ran LCD material (“Pow Pow”) or like the focus was blurring a bit (“Somebody’s Calling Me,” where seasick piano/noise combos and creeping seduction would’ve played better at half the length). But Murphy’s too smart — either as a canny student of music, or as a songwriter himself — to allow for any outright disasters. Even tossed-off larks like “Drunk Girls” have lines that will stick with you: “Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut/ It comes back but it’s never the same.”
Still, in its context, you couldn’t help but feel the magnitude of This Is Happening working on you. There’s been no shortage of observations over the years that, just maybe, music critics responded so positively to Murphy’s work because his music itself functions as criticism of a sort. Murphy had written a kind of imagined career into existence. And This Is Happening does everything the ending of a trilogy is supposed to do — reprises some of the most beloved moments from before but bigger and bolder. Even if some of the retreads didn’t hit as hard this time around, there’s a sense of finality, a stylistic evolution reaching its logical endpoint and allowing for some amount of emotional closure. How could you ask for a more appropriate ending?
But, of course, it didn’t stay that way. The following year, Murphy would try to break up LCD Soundsystem for good, with one last bow at Madison Square Garden. A documentary about the night and Murphy’s hand-wringing over his decision would follow, which in turn was followed by a big box set. LCD’s Long Goodbye went on for years, and it’s now easy to forget how much of a Moment their farewell felt like at the time. This was before the likes of the National or Arcade Fire or Bon Iver rose to the prominent positions they now occupy; this was long before anyone had an inkling that the War On Drugs and Tame Impala would become some of the most popular, head-scratching aberrations of the ’10s. Murphy was an indie artist theoretically washed-up before he’d even started, and the MSG show was this perplexing, alternate universe party that didn’t seem as if it should’ve been allowed to happen.
When Murphy announced LCD were returning, and there would be new music, so many fans reacted not with excitement but by feeling betrayed. As if that Moment was now very much just a moment in a long string of them, and perhaps a disingenuous one. Having attended both the MSG goodbye show and the very first LCD reunion gig at the much-smaller Webster Hall, I never understood it. There was a reason LCD were where they were when This Is Happening came out, and there was a reason so many of us fought to get tickets to MSG. This had become one of the artists of our fleeting youth, one spent hopelessly anxious about it slipping away while we were still in it. The music of James Murphy might’ve conjured nostalgia for those days — this time more mis-appropriated than unremembered — but it only felt more potent as the years piled up. (This is not to mention how formidable LCD Soundsystem had become as a live act, and how anyone should take every chance possible to see them onstage.)
Then there was another album, American Dream. And while it couldn’t contend with the stature of This Is Happening when last year’s decade lists rolled out, in many ways it’s a richer, more fascinating work overall than This Is Happening, a new end destination as LCD took on an altogether more sincere tone. While its highs might not be as stratospheric, it’s arguably better front to back, and once more colored in new shades to LCD’s music and template. It found Murphy in quite a different place — no longer wrangling with all the head games and perceptions of the past, a bit wiser with age, offering a more thorough engagement with life and loss. Yet while it remains to be seen what else Murphy has to say now, whether there is a whole other LCD era on the horizon, for the moment it’s impossible to see American Dream as anything but a post-script. Not a complete rebirth, but an epilogue to that story Murphy had already told.
Narratively and historically, This Is Happening will always end one chapter, at the very least — not just in the sense that it was the one-time swan song of LCD Soundsystem, but also because it found us saying goodbye to a 40-year-old James Murphy and one iteration of his writing. It makes sense that he would have felt like he was done at that point in time. So much of his work had been about, in some fashion, saying goodbye to our youth, and our beauty, and our hipness. In that sense, he was writing for those who were already over New York, for those who were moving on, when he penned Sound Of Silver’s closing paean. This Is Happening deepened some themes. It met adult issues like divorce head-on. It completed an arc.
It always seemed like Murphy thought he was writing for people his own age — people who were starting to feel old and mulling over the people that were no longer in their lives, people who could remember record stores and tribalism. But he was also, really, writing for the next generation. The one that felt listless, the one that felt old beyond their years and, simultaneously, like they were never going to grow up properly. The people who felt like they were never getting around to the things they were actually supposed to be doing. These were the people who felt the years collapse in Murphy’s songs, the history cluttered in our heads and our aging out of chronological order. We were just getting started when Murphy’s depictions of soon-to-be-middle-age drift took hold in our lives, but every note just hit harder as a result.
Maybe it wasn’t the whole point of LCD Soundsystem, but it had to be a big part of it. Murphy’s entire story was always that it was too late, things were finished and drained, but he excavated something out of all that. If you were young and felt that way already, This Is Happening was always going to linger. Whether you wanted to think of LCD Soundsystem songs on some philosophical level or you just wanted the physical, communal experience of everyone losing themselves in those cathartic breaks of “Dance Yrself Clean,” Murphy had given us one more story about our time, while it was happening, in the grandiose and widescreen terms that feel necessary when you’re still young and searching. So, perversely and paradoxically, This Is Happening was an ending, and it would come undone, and maybe that was always how it was meant to be — because, for some of us, it always sounded like a bit of a beginning, too.