The last years of the ‘90s were an abundant time of breezy beats and ersatz, Afro-Latin inflected forays perfectly suited to any start up launch party, whether it had an ice sculpture or not. A few years later, however, while standing on the desert of the early 2000s, amid the colossal wreck of the previous decade — the fling of flings? — you might have wondered, “What’s next, now that this near-sightedly idealistic decade is over?” LCD Soundsystem had already surveyed the detritus of the ‘80s and figured out that the solution was to go backwards not forwards, and replace the privileged, feel-good sound of the late ‘90s with the edgy, skinny swagger of post punk and synth pop.
I first heard LCD Soundsystem while working at AOL Music (formerly Spinner.com, an early internet radio station) one evening in the fall of 2002. I was listening to a mix by British DJ Trevor Jackson and up popped “Beat Connection” from the first LCD EP — that also contained “Losing My Edge.” To me it sounded like something from 1981, by a contemporary of Killing Joke. I had no idea who did it and there was no playlist. However, we were all becoming aware of pop culture’s imminent immersion in ‘80s music and fashion. A return to PiL buttons, Gang Of Four’s proletarian anthems, the pop of Madonna, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and the Eurodisco maneuverings of the Italians meant that we didn’t have to be alone in the (post-) Dolce Vita, Bush era.
LCD Soundsystem was among the first out the gate in the dash to merge all these ’80s elements, as were Ladytron, Larry Tee, DJ Hell and west coast, indie rocksters The Calculators (a band composed of future members of LCD’s DFA label mates The Rapture, and Poolside). It’s also worth pointing out that the band emerged in an era when pop music was worshipped. It cleverly charted its way through the choppy seas of poppy breeze with a compass of dance-leaning punkyness, deft — and daft — arrangements and hooks that were carried on synth sounds and angular guitars and vocals. It was avant retro pop with a new found edge.
Jumping forward a whole 15 years and LCD Soundsystem prepares to drop its fourth studio album on September 1st. American Dream will come out in the midst of one of the most turbulent periods in American history, so a heaping helping of irony was probably employed in picking the title. This LP combines the ‘80s fascination of earlier works while slyly winking at Krautrock, disco, house and techno. The band and Murphy himself were always good at creating attention and craving a tension right out the gate. This is evident on the first track “Oh Baby,” which falls somewhere in the middle of the energy levels of their first album’s opening tune “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” “Get Innocuous,” the opener on Sound Of Silver and “Dance Yourself Clean,” which kicks off This Is Happening. Its chiming and humming synths provide a Suicide-inflected backdrop for James Murphy’s plaintive vocalizing to navigate. It’s dark, sparsely seductive and sets the tone for all that follows.
“Other Voices” has some of the qualities that were attributed to the best of the class of 2002, irreverent and anthemic all at once, pummeling forward on a bed of springy bass and disco percussion as Murphy intones that “Time won’t be messed with” and that “You’re still a pushover for passionate people.” Shimmering keyboard lines and guitar sounds that you might find on a Klaus Schulze record swoop in and he opens the floor to Nancy Whang, who delivers with “who can you trust and who are your friends, who is impossible and who is the enemy?” in a tone even drier than his. It’s tough to outdo James Murphy at being droll but Whang always has, and together they sound like they have world wearily awoken from the actual American dream, maybe in a park in Charlottesville, a far cry from waking up in the studio in Williamsburg or one of New York’s other bastions of hipster beatification in the early noughties.
That posturing era saw LCD Soundsystem successfully trawl classic and contemporary music for textures, tones and tunes. These were threaded through its own distinctive approach and Murphy’s unique voice. This album proves that the outfit is still adept at this. Post-punk, acid house, ‘80s synth-pop and ‘70s rock are woven into a coherent whole couched in compelling arrangements, catchy melody lines and shrewd nods to points in the entire histories of rock and dance music. “How Do You Sleep” is a contemplative study in ecstactically maudlin, ‘80s synthetics, an exercise in the exorcism of goth-tinged influences that perhaps lurk below Murphy’s stoic, rough-traded exterior.
Not only is the band fluent in the past and the present but actually seems in awe of its predecessors, a salient servant to its members’ record collections. This is probably as much a product of the their experiences as it is the band’s collective understanding of its clued-in fans. There should be no complaints about this symbiotic relationship, after all somebody needed to propagate this arcane knowledge at the tail end of the ‘90s and the dawn of an era of knowing (everything via discogs?) apathy and irony.
“I Used To” speaks definitively of all this. It begins with Murphy crooning “I used to dance alone at my own volition,” and the rest of the song continues to build tension by rhyming each successive line with the first; “I used to see your hands in their weird positions, used to like your hair when you watched musicians” and “you made me throw my hands at my own traditions and then you had a laugh at my inhibitions.” This rhyming device seems monontonous on paper but in the air, sonically, the song’s meaning is boltstered by that final syllable’s repetition. It builds and builds over a tough backbeat and thin shards of keyboard texture before being released with a rising and swelling arc of synthetic strings and metallic guitar while Murphy laments, “I’m still trying to wake up.” Simply, or simperingly, put, it’s quite impressive.
“Change Yr Mind” lumbers in shamelessly displaying a cod reggae groove, liberally sprinkled with sharp shafts of guitar that slice over a prayer-like vocal. It opens things up perfectly for “Tonite,” the current single, in which Murphy states “You hate the idea that you’re losing your youth but you stood in background until you got older.” Electro-discoid invocations to gen-x mid-life crises never sounded so deliciously glib but only Murphy could succeed in presenting man’s greatest fear, that nobody’s got time, so nonchalantly. Meanwhile the song’s synth bass line bounds along, creating an electronic time warp, one that might grant us all repose from the rigors of fleeting vigor and vitality, though probably not.
“Call The Police” and “Emotional Haircut” see the band returning to more traditional post punkery. The former ups the gears nicely after the motorik chug and sardonic resignation of “Tonite” and rocks out very nicely with lines like “but you’re waking up a monster that will drag you from your horey holes of gold.” This one features a bass guitar twanging and galloping and a lead guitar line that would slot effortlessly into a ‘70s, Springsteen paean to adolescent angst. This is the album’s straight-ahead rocker, a truly rousing anthem with Murphy telling us to “just call the police, call ‘em up” as the track strides to its swift fade out.
“Emotional Haircut” is similarly, unselfconsciously rocking. Murphy throws out gems like “The look of great concern in your eyes and you’re surprised at my…” and the band chants “emotional haircut” back at him with a verve that brings The Undertones to mind. Pre-post punk pedantry, per’aps but Murphy never does anything by the book and this is no exception. It’s choppy, punctuated with swirling guitars and tribal drums and could create a swell in the mosh pit. “Call The Police” takes you up to the barricade, “Emotional Haircut” is for dancing in front of the fires. An Undertones-like incantation always makes me feel that way for some strange reason.
The title track and its closer “Black Screen” are the comedown anthems on this record and they return to the lush and measured soundscapes that allow James Murphy to effortlessly present his disenchanted, mellow bile without sonic interruption. “American Dream” ambles slowly along on an electronic, waltz rhythm and he opens with “Wake up with somebody near you and at someone else’s place.” You know this isn’t going to be a rousing anthem to the pleasures of summer or youth after that introduction and then this life-affirming cadence, “you took acid and looked in the mirror, watched the beard crawl around on your face.” Later he drops the highly motivational couplet “find a place where you can be boring, where you won’t need to explain.” But the music is so pretty, glassy and delicate that you swoon to its disillusioned sway and melt into the misanthropy.
The 12 minute and 5 seconds long “Black Screen” finishes things. It touches down after the climactic end of “Emotional Haircut” and rolls along at a perfectly Cosmic tempo of one hundred beats per minute, building languid tension with a combination of muted beats and throbbing bass. It pulses through cavernous synth tones that lift the mood from suicidal (à la Vega and otherwise) to sentimental. Murphy gently lays out dreamy litanies of dread and disappointment like “things sneak up on me like a landslide.” A little more than half way through it breaks down, the beats drop out, it continues to its end as an ambient piece with brittle piano draped over the synthetic oscillations and the album slowly and gently fades out to sleep and dream in an American way.
It’s the perfect way to finish this album. Many of the songs contain references to sleeping, waking up or dreaming. This lyrical sleight of hand is elegant and it creates a subtle theme that appears and vanishes throughout the course of the record without creating an overwrought “concept.” It’s a testament to how Murphy has matured as a lyricist and a singer, how he and the band are fully capable of crafting engaging arrangements whether the music is rousing or pensive. The overall tone matches what is going on in America and the world today; feelings of defeat, panic, and chemical and chimerical triumph pervade from start to finish. Daft Punk left LCD Soundsystem’s house party a while ago, on American Dream the band sounds like it has cleaned up the mess, gone to bed and woken up to a branded new day in the empire. Christopher Orr