Tripping Out on LCD Soundsystem

The other day, in one of the many WhatsApp (soon to be deleted – Cheers, Zuck) groups where I have been seeking human interaction during this period sans lumière, a very dear friend of the Snobs, Carlos, was lamenting the terrible passing of MF Doom. So eloquent were his words that I feel it necessary to share:

“When I was 18 and first moved to Taiwan by myself and before I knew anyone, I’d often walk around the city by myself exploring, often at night, and MF DOOM was pretty much my constant companion, always making me laugh and smile with [his] wonderful lyrics and smooth as fuck flow”

(…pretty good, right?)

This led me to reflect upon some of my own musical companions that have accompanied me through these living years in an equally profound way as MF Doom has for dear Carlos. With that in mind, there are few artists who exist today whose sound embodies life – that is to say that actually capture living – as James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem.  

Murphy entered the main stage of music later than most. He did not conceive of LCD Soundsystem until he was 32. Even then, LCD’s birth only took place as a consequence of the creation of DFA Records the year prior, thanks to an introduction to Tim Goldsworthy of UNKLE. This introduction from Adam Holmes proved seminal, with Murphy himself saying: “And so I met Tim [Goldsworthy], who was my musical partner at the beginning of DFA and I saw a whole different world that I never had any peek into, which was dance music.” As the curtain on Dance music was pulled before Murphy’s eyes, his own musical background and enamour for Punk began to connect the dots between the two musical spheres. And so, LCD Soundsystem greeted the world through the release of “Losing My Edge”/”Beat Connection”. Despite being released almost two decades ago and originally serving as a one-off joke about an ageing Murphy staying relevant, Losing My Edge perhaps has greater relevance amongst a youthful generation today who suffer from social-media driven paranoia of being ephemeral themselves.

However, it was not until 2005 that LCD Soundsystem released their first, eponymous LP. The much anticipated debut album showcased Murphy’s meticulous production skills that he had been honing for many years prior thanks to different roles in bands, as well as an engineer. It also revealed his own musical heroes thanks to unashamed acknowledgment of the likes of Bowie, Can, Daft Punk and others. Both of these traits would become pillars of the unmistakable, definitive sound of LCD Soundsystem in their own right. Then, against this familiar yet distinctive backdrop, came Murphy’s songwriting. Taking a 4 minute and 30 second introduction, Beat Connection is a commentary on the often much anticipated but hollow ending to regular partying: “Everybody here’s afraid of fun/And nobody’s getting any play/It’s the saddest night out in the U.S.A.”. Meanwhile, in Great Release (a musical homage to Brian Eno alongside the unmistakable metronome of Suicide), LCD’s signature ability to build and build songs is on full show, and this, combined with the closing harmonies of Murphy, capture what it is to feel alive. 

Despite LCD’s debut offering fantastic individual tracks, highlighting many of the varied musical avenues they have to offer, it is not a cohesive album in a way that leapt out to the masses in its entirety. As a result, the band did not initially bash down the club door to spill out onto the main street for all to see. 

This all changed with the arrival of their second album, Sound of Silver. Released in 2007 – after a small side hustle with Nike that I won’t really go into – the album blew down the club doors and made LCD Soundsystem a household name, rightfully so. Where Murphy’s debut album didn’t quite bridge the gap between dancefloor anthems and an album in the historical sense, Sound of Silver did. The album’s opening track, Get Innocuous!, is an unadulterated dance floor filler that tips its head to Berlin-era Bowie and Kraftwerk, turned up a notch.

The album was also released under the failing shadow of the Bush presidency, which gave many artists like Trent Reznor (Year Zero) the creative ammo to shoot back against the impact of United States’ Foreign Policy. But, Murphy took a different view (North American Scum), instead deploring the world’s sweeping view of him, and regular people like him, because of his own government’s actions: 

I hate the feelin’ when you’re lookin’ at me that way / ‘Cause we’re North Americans / But if we act all shy, it’ll make it okay / Makes it go away

North American Scum

Then come two of the defining LCD Soundsystem tracks that champion why Murphy and LCD Soundsystem are one of the greatest bands to capture the essence of what it is to be Human. Simply put, Someone Great must be amongst the most poignant songs to describe loss. Murphy’s observations of the banal is what makes them so pertinent:

The worst is all the lovely weather / I’m stunned it’s not raining / The coffee isn’t even bitter / Because, what’s the difference?

Someone Great

The previously meaningless observations you would make are now painfully meaningful. Because, the person you make them with is no longer here. All the while, he sings about loss against the constant humming of the synth, as if to equally acknowledge the world continuing, unaffected.

Just as Murphy has captured loss in a way few ever could, he follows this up with a song that defines a generation for many: All My Friends. By now a staple theme in his music, All My Friends is about Murphy grappling with middle age with the temptation of one last heady night, the desire to briefly suspend reality, that feeling of Fuck It. In doing so, he embodies a desire that many have experienced and shared, regardless of age, in an ever faster-paced world with access to everything all the time. 

Ultimately, Sound of Silver marks the zenith of LCD Soundsystem’s artistic powers. It is a maze of musical heritage, featuring inspiration from the likes of Talking Heads (Us vs Them) to the Leonard Cohen closer (New York I Love You) that continues the self-deprecating wit found in Murphy’s earlier work, whilst offering a more solemn tone hitherto seen. The result is a masterpiece many consider to be one of the defining albums of the 2000s. 

With widespread critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination to boot, Sound of Silver cemented LCD Soundsystem’s legacy in the mainstream. However, by the time This Is Happening, the group’s third album, arrived in 2010, the end seemed in sight just as they got going. In 2008, prior to the announcement of their 3rd album, Al Doyle, the group’s guitarist (and fellow Hot Chip member), alluded to the end, despite denials from him and Murphy subsequently. Nonetheless, Murphy began to explore other creative avenues, scoring the film soundtrack for Greenberg. In the lead up to the album’s release, Murphy consistently informed the press that the time had come; age had finally caught up with him, he was weary of the industry’s expectations, that the commitment to LCD prevented his desire to pursue other interests outside of it. Therefore, it came as no surprise that upon the eventual release of This Is Happening, Murphy declared it to be LCD’s last.

Now 40, Murphy approached This Is Happening differently to LCD’s predecessors. The final curtain seemingly a full-gone conclusion, the group threw their Hail Mary. They uprooted themselves from New York to record the album at “The Mansion” in Los Angeles. They slept, partied and recorded all within one setting, pouring every last sinew into the album. 

By this point, you know what to expect from Murphy and his merry men and women. This Is Happening is a full frontal assault of LCD as you know them and more. Drunk Girls concludes what Daft Punk Is Playing at My House initiated – a witty inquiry into the self-important/loathing/indulgent behaviour we humans like to dabble in against a sound that encourages that very behaviour. I Can Change sees a return to Murphy’s more poignant side, revealing the hopelessness that comes trying to salvage a doomed relationship, losing your sense of self worth in order to keep who you love – the ultimate own goal we have all succumbed to. 

The first record Murphy bought when he was a child was a 7” of Bowie’s Fame and its impact on him is evident throughout LCD’s Bowie-punctuated catalog. And, if This Is Happening was Murphy’s Last Hurrah, then All I Want is the ultimate homage to one of his, and our, musical heroes. Home serves as another tribute to another David from Talking Heads, particularly This Must Be The Place. Home also closes off what All My Friends started (and the “Ahhhh Ahh” of the album’s opener, Dance Yrself Clean): a conversation to self to begrudgingly accept that these forays into the rabbit hole cannot continue and we must now grapple with the responsibility of increasingly adult life. Nevertheless, as with much of LCD’s music, the sonic backdrop to Home leaves you with the question – but what if…?

Though not as seminal as Sound of Silver, nor quite as well-constructed as an album, This Is Happening forms a logical and fitting end to its predecessors. By now, some of the tracks feel well-travelled and not as impactful. On the other hand, there are other tracks that go further, and others still that feel like the ultimate goodbye.

That is, until they decided to come back. Despite “THE” last show at Madison Square Garden, an accompanied documentary of that show, AND a 5-box vinyl set [Is that final enough for you?], rumours began to emerge of a reunion at the end of 2015, 5 years after their initial farewell.

The Madison Square Garden farewell

It seemed as though Murphy had indeed answered that question of What If with Fuck It one more time. Now this pissed off a lot of previously loved-up James Murphy fans, particularly those who had fought so hard (especially financially) to share in the final moments of LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden, only for that not to be the case. Despite allegations that it was all just a marketing strategy to bring home the Benjamins, Murphy insisted that the reunion was, in part, thanks to none other than a conversation with Bowie. Asked by Bowie to work on Blackstar, Bowie’s parting gift to the world, Murphy revealed to his idol that he had been writing music in his time off that sounded very much like LCD, but he was uncomfortable with them getting back together. Bowie then informed him that is exactly why he should do it. As Murphy put it in his interview with The Guardian: “He [Bowie] was David Jones, and he’d done nothing but make himself uncomfortable for his entire career.”

The decision was made. LCD Soundsystem announced their return at the start of 2016 with a new album on the horizon, as well as a headliner slot at Coachella that year. American Dream finally landed in September 2017, and like their previous albums, arrived showered in praise and eventually earning the group their first and only Grammy to date.

American Dream marks a stark difference to their previous albums. The jittery excitedness of LCD’s old work is no longer – there is no dance floor filler to kick off proceedings, unlike in the past. Not only is Murphy older once more, his own musical idols are no more. Many of those whom Murphy references in much of his music died prior to the release of American Dream, its impact upon Murphy evident throughout the album. Oh Baby opens the album with a tribute to Suicide’s Alan Vega. It carries the same metronomic tone present in Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream, that also first made an LCD appearance in Great Release. Unlike Great Release, Oh Baby is a break-up song in every sense. It’s inspired by Murphy’s own divorce from his wife during the band’s hiatus that also marks the ultimate break-up from Suicide. Even though Bowie had asked Murphy to work on Blackstar, Murphy declined the offer with the exception of some percussion input. The weight of Murphy’s regret can be heard in American Dream, in black screen – effectively an ode to Bowie – Murphy laments: “I had fear in the room / So I stopped turning up.”

In any case, American Dream still features many of the career-defining traits of the Murphy of old. In grappling with the sense of finality and loss that has come with the sudden passing of many of his musical heroes, the always-ageing Murphy quips true to form: “You got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete” (emotional haircut). Murphy’s “middle aged ramblings” (tonite) are as funny as ever, but there is no longer a sense of uncertainty that gripped his observations on ageing before, rather one of acceptance and wisdom. call the police, against the LCD signatures of a swooning guitar and multiple percussive layers, highlights this wisdom that has come with age. Unlike in North American Scum, Murphy could see the foreboding dangers that came with Trump’s rise to power in 2016: 

The old guys are frightened and frightening to behold / The kids come out fighting and still doing what they’re told / But you’re waking a monster that will drive you from your hoary holes of gold

call the police

During LCD Soundsystem’s hiatus, Murphy and DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy’s already deteriorating relationship had, by this point, totally collapsed. how do you sleep?, the album’s centrepiece, is Murphy’s definitive shade-throwing slight against his former friend-turned-foe. It is undoubtedly the best track of the album and. clocking in at over 9 minutes, employs all of the creative brilliance of LCD Soundsystem: building, ominous percussion, finally releasing after 5 minutes to become an outright dance track. Poor Tim Goldsworthy must now envisage an entire venue full of people dancing passionately to Murphy clinically tearing him apart.

In its acceptance of closure to many of life’s great experiences: love, loss, friendship, American Dream undoubtedly adds another layer to Murphy’s unique ability to narrate the sensations we have or will experience in our lives. During a lecture at Red Bull Music Academy, Murphy commented:

“And I do hope that people are making music that becomes that, going forward. That has its moment in time, but also becomes that people can self-identify with. It translates enough that in the future people can find it again.”

Who knows whether American Dream may be nothing more than a swan song to LCD Soundsystem’s incredible catalog. In my case, Murphy employs the sounds of my parents’ musical idols, the soundtrack to my childhood and now my own musical idols, and gives them a new page in the annals of time, alongside lyrics that coincide with much of my own adulthood. So much so, that he has been physically present in many of the moments in which he sings.