“I used to hate cool stuff because I was jealous of it. Then I thought I would try cool stuff to see if it was fun. Then I was cool. Now I’m just old. That’s the arc.” That’s James Murphy, delightfully neurotic LCD Soundsystem frontman, in the midst of explaining to New York magazine why he flamboyantly disbanded his deified dance-rock band in 2011, and why he’s bringing them back now for American Dream, their first new album in seven years. But that’s not quite the arc. So long as the wider world has deified him, Murphy has always been cool. But more importantly, he has always been old.
He has always felt old, in any event. Murphy was already in his early 30s when he debuted LCD Soundsystem as a one-man-band enterprise with 2002’s “Losing My Edge,” a wry and loopy ode to deteriorating hipster cred and the paralyzing fear that “the kids are coming up from behind.” My favorite part has always been when Murphy starts frantically listing the coolest bands he can think of, desperate to cling to his youth by clinging to the music that soundtracked the idealized version of his youth. It’s a furious argument between two snooty record-store clerks compressed into one wildly overactive brain; it’s a showstopping monologue with Hamlet holding a pristine vinyl copy of the first Suicide record instead of a skull.
It is an honor to have lived through an era when a song this defiantly weird could get this famous, or at least this influential. Fast-forward nine years and three beloved full-length albums later, and there’s Murphy onstage at Madison Square Garden in April 2011 with his fearsome live band, vamping through “Losing My Edge” as part of the band’s operatically hyped Last Show Ever. You know, the one that inspired both a five-album vinyl box set called The Long Goodbye and a full documentary only slightly ironically titled Shut Up and Play the Hits. That show was precisely the sort of pompous and momentous sonic occasion that “Losing My Edge” both mocked and celebrated, an entire internet-raised generation rallying around the battle cry I was there!
My first thought watching this clip now is how physical a live performance “Losing My Edge” demands, how many sweaty musicians it takes to replicate Murphy’s loner-studio-rat original. My second thought is that the key to the song might be its concluding, taunting chant of “We all know what you really want.” It occurs to me that I never figured out what Murphy meant by that, exactly. I thought I’d know by now.
It’s likely, of course, that Murphy didn’t know either, which might explain why you can sum up his half-decade of fitful retirement with this tweet:
James Murphy worked so hard on his wine bar, he developed gout https://t.co/xqzHZ2L8f8— Pitchfork (@pitchfork) June 19, 2017
LCD Soundsystem’s reunion was inevitable, no matter how definitive, how final that Long Goodbye purported to be. People got a little pissed anyway, fearing that new shows and a new album would diminish the band’s legacy, or worse yet, the I was there! bragging rights of the fans who’d made it to MSG. They needn’t have worried, though endless, charismatic worrying is what this band and its devotees do best. Here is Murphy on an American Dream track called (heh) “Change Yr Mind,” a lithe and hypnotic bit of Remain in Light–era Talking Heads punk-funk that perfectly soundtracks yet more self-negating deadpan neurosis:
I’ve just got nothing left to say
I’m in no place to get it right
And I’m not dangerous now
The way I used to be once
I’m just too old for it now
At least that seems to be true
Imagine the extreme confidence it takes to build an entire career on insisting that you’re this unconfident. Imagine walking away at the peak of your band’s powers only to return a mere six years later with a new album that includes the line “I’ve just got nothing left to say.” Relax, everyone. James Murphy is still dangerous, and still cool, and still old enough to know that being dangerous, and even being cool, has never quite been the point.
“I had a revelation that it was easier than I thought,” is how Murphy describes the eureka moment of “Losing My Edge” in Lizzy Goodman’s gigantic and enthralling new oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011. “I was afraid and I suddenly became unafraid.”
Goodman’s book chronicles the rise (and for many, the inevitable fall) of superstar early-21st-century bands from the Strokes to Interpol to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a riot of wildly appealing and gleefully self-destructive artists touted as the Last True Rock Stars. But Murphy steals the show. He first rose to prominence in NYC as part of DFA, the record label–production team that taught the indie kids to dance again. (“I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids,” is how “Losing My Edge” summarizes it.)
Murphy’s debut set piece in Meet Me in the Bathroom is the first time he takes ecstasy and hits the club, his pockets full of Juicy Fruit because he’d read that people high on ecstasy chew a lot of gum. His friends somehow rig it so he peaks at the precise moment the DJ drops the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which Murphy calls “my absolute favorite song from childhood.” He ended up giving away most of the Juicy Fruit, but his rapture was absolute. “After that moment I danced to what I cared about,” he told Goodman. “I was changed.”
But this is my favorite Murphy quote in the book, another loopy monologue, but with real ferocity behind it, a distillation of the megalomaniacal ambition he never attempted to hide:
All I wanted was to do good enough work that it was important. I wanted to be important. I didn’t know what that meant, even. There’s something sad about “Oh, I’ll just do my thing.” It just seems safe. I don’t want it to just be “Are you humble? Okay, we like you.” Would we ever have Lou Reed or David Bowie if that was the rule? How was it okay for a twentysomething Bryan Ferry to be outrageous and be like, “I’m a fucking god,’” in 1972, and for us to all say, “Of course! That’s ordained! That’s wonderful.” But how dare anyone stick their neck out now? By the late nineties, that’s the way things were. “I’ll just do my thing.” Fuck you. No.
That extravagant self-belief, and Murphy’s mesmerizing cult of personality, drove the first three LCD Soundsystem records: the self-titled debut in 2005, Sound of Silver in 2007, and This Is Happening in 2010. All were critically beloved, and very much of their internet-abetted time in seamlessly combining only the coolest strains of dance music and rock music alike. These were record-nerd-syllabus bullet points reborn as arena-packing anthems; Sound of Silver stands out if only for “All My Friends,” swooning and careening and terribly romantic, the closest thing this era ever got to its own “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
American Dream, of course, emerges in a year when one of pop music’s most engrossing choruses is “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead.” But LCD Soundsystem are undaunted, unchanged, unerring in their quest to transform wry cynicism into fist-pumping optimism. What’s initially striking about this record is how comfortingly them it sounds. (Or how him it sounds: Onstage, this is an extensive, immaculately curated ensemble, but Murphy is credited with playing the vast majority of the instruments here, save the odd guitar or vintage synth.) “Call the Police” was an excellent choice for a re-immersing first single, a Brian Eno jock jam with a driving bass line and soaring guitars. The presentation of this YouTube clip feels important.
One fringe benefit of that Long Goodbye was that it walled off LCD Soundsystem’s unimpeachable first run; it managed expectations for American Dream, which doesn’t stack up to Sound of Silver or This Is Happening, and doesn’t particularly seem to be even trying. It’s just Murphy doing more of what he has always done, in particular the delightful blabbermouth banter that drives, for example, this goofy moment from “Tonite”:
And luck is always better than skill at things
We’re flying blind
Oh, good gracious
I sound like my mom!
The wonderfully named “Emotional Haircut” works the same way, all frantic drums and climactic mosh-pit drive, with a bonus helping of the same aging-hipster angst that drove Murphy from the onset. (“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.”) If you’re in this for the rampant silliness, though, carve out some time for “Other Voices,” the cowbells rampant, and its repeated chant of “You’re still a pushover for passionate people!” mighty infectious. That one also has a cameo from keyboardist/vocalist Nancy Whang, a longtime staple of the live band, who can bump classic LCD songs several tiers upward in delightfully small ways, such as the way she shouts “NORTH AMERICA!” in the background of “North American Scum.”
If there’s a new angle to LCD on American Dream, it is somewhere in the handful of huge, blaring, almost dirge-like slices of gothic New Wave. “I Used To” sounds like every song on the Cure’s Disintegration blasting simultaneously, and reimagines Murphy’s Juicy Fruit past as a Siouxsie and the Banshees–owned haunted house: “I used to dance alone of my own volition / I used to wait all night for the rock transmissions.” And “How Do You Sleep?”, which takes its name from a slightly less euphoric John Lennon song, has a similar vampiric grandeur, all jolting synth bass, though the cowbell-driven beat that eventually asserts itself is as emphatic and, yes, euphoric as anything Murphy’s ever done.
This is a great album unconcerned with trying to sound like a classic one, shrewdly illuminating the difference between living up to a legacy and desperately trying to top it. “Tonite” concludes with this:
So 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
From I was there! to an emphatic rejection of the very idea of FOMO. That’s quite an arc. Plenty of god-level rock bands have plenty of advice on how best to waste your youth; at American Dream’s various peaks, Murphy counsels us on how to avoid wasting our old age on deathless concerns that we’ve wasted our youth. He’s still just doing his thing. It’s cooler than it sounds.