LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
by Oliver Rose
To my ears at least, LCD Soundsystem were always about pronouncements. From the word go – on 2002’s wry, snarky minimalist anti-hit, Losing My Edge – to the theatrical kamikaze of the ‘final’ show at Madison Square Garden in April 2011 (and, indeed, its lushly packaged supporting materials), theirs was a meta attitude. James Murphy always seemed desperate to ignite conversation through his music – not between critics and listeners, but between himself and you. He shouts out the best bits of his record collection; he denounces his nationality; Daft Punk play at his house – but it’s all just an artsy jape. This is a guy who has built a reputation on artfully pulling your leg – by telling you a complex joke, and knowingly punching your arm, winking at you, when you finally get it. He’s your giggling chum, and all he ever wanted was to sit you down with a fat stack of Detroit techno 12”s and shoot the shit.
With that in mind, it never mattered that ‘the long goodbye’ turned out to be a sort of fib. Coming back from the near-ostentatiously dead is, in itself, a powerful gesture – it’s not some wimpy reunion circuit bullshit that lacks quality and/or integrity. Moreover, James Murphy has made pains to be dreadfully human about all this; he apologises endlessly in interviews and his social media is groaning with confessional diatribes concerning his bands’ meticulously designed, and now infamous, self-destruction.
The result of this resurrection is, then, long awaited, with two camps of patient listeners chomping at the bit. In the blue corner: there are those, like me, who just wanted LCD back. Opposite are the new detractors – ex-fans who want to be able to say they told you so. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to, because American Dream is, in the words of The Skinny’s Tallah Brash, ‘fucking glorious’.
Spanning a fairly ambitious sixty-eight minutes, LCD’s fourth LP is, in this writer’s opinion, their most consistent (and certainly their darkest) effort yet. Like the well-tutored DJ padawan he is, Murphy has sequenced a perfect, varied array of instrumentation, tone, mood and pace into a very enjoyable, long-playing experience. It’s one of the most robust album packages I’ve heard in a long time (whatever you do – do not shuffle this record.)
The kingpin here is doubtlessly the magical Oh Baby. A gently swaying, misty electroclash hangover, it’s one of Murphy’s most sentimental songs ever, and a worthy opener to follow This Is Happening’s epoch defining, Dance Yrself Clean. Throbbing synth-bass, twinkly arpeggios and reverb-laden lyrics detailing a ‘love life staggering home’ – it’s like the Drive soundtrack, compressed into six minutes, and emotionally amplified. The record’s epic centrepiece, How Do You Sleep?, follows suit electronically, unfolding savagely over nine minutes into what may well be a stab Murphy’s now ex-communicated DFA co-founder, Tim Goldsworthy. Channelling thumping Krautrock textures for the first half, Murphy gets menacing at the 3:38 mark when pounding synthesiser stabs scatter-shoot liquid squelch all over this post-disco burner. The more upbeat Tonite follows, with a post-radio critique pitching the ‘hobbled veteran of the disk shop inquisition’ against ‘bullying children of the fabulous.’ Keen analogue enthusiasts will guess the notoriously acidic synths at play here, namely the Roland SH-101 (for those interested, Murphy lists every instrument used on the album in the liner notes) – the same hard-working ears will pick out DFA’s custom-built modular synth rack, an image of which was shared on Instagram (it’s a behemoth).
American Dream showcases messy guitar rock too – some of the band’s most punk material since 2005’s Movement. Emotional Haircut is a scruffy, slapdash Modern Lovers tribute, grabbing superficial fashion by the scruff and giving it a firmly cynical talking to. Elsewhere, Call the Police sounds like a new wave call to arms, racing forward with driving music momentum and perpetual bass guitar, rising through the mix until the song’s beautifully scrappy climax.
Perhaps the record’s finest moment however, is the title track. It is the music of truth; the soundtrack to the return from a romantic coma, where entrapment and a self-effacing fear of hurting someone else, have starved the heart of true love. In much the same vein as New York, I Love You… or All I Want, American Dream catches James Murphy out as the sensitive soul he really is, turning the tables on the razor-witted loud-mouthing and show-off antics brought you here. It’s an anthem to gentle optimism at an apparently, totally helpless time. And it’s an anthem to music as well – as it fades into nothing, that chorus of ‘sha-bang’s’ behind the title refrain evokes the pop singles of Phil Spector and the Brill building, drawing on observations from youth… a youth that’s distinctly American, but also, distinctly Murphy’s own. In terms of poignancy, it’s topped only by Black Screen’s touching tribute to a figure in Murphy’s life who fell between father and friend; who made him shy and unbecoming, but who inspired him to make important life choices. Perhaps you’ll get it immediately; or perhaps it’ll take you a while – either way, when you realise, it’s about the most touching and ethereal tribute to the megalithic David Bowie that there has, and perhaps ever will, be.
This is not a flawless album – not by any means. In fact, there are a few things that come to mind as being very simple fixes: the drum machine intro on the title track has been chopped and shouldn’t have; Black Screen goes on too long at the end; and Emotional Haircut doesn’t really get loud or brash enough. They are but slight blemishes however, on a highly polished, soulful and extraordinarily intelligent record. Most importantly, it’s a record that you never want to end, and as the final track’s synthesisers evaporate into white noise, leaving it’s tear-jerking tribute hanging, the only natural reaction seems to be to start the record over. It’s a sentimental experience, one imbued with memory, regret, and melancholy – even when it’s trying to be hopeful. It’s dark – for sure. Whether that’s the antidote to the controversy of LCD’s comeback is up to you. It’s sure as hell worked for me.