By Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)
The “big reunion” can feel like one of the most tired tropes in music. Far too often, once great bands will reunite years later in what can clearly be seen as an in-genuine cash grab. Some reunions will merely come in the form of a tour, where a band will not even attempt to record music. However, when bands mark a “big reunion” with a “comeback album”, it has potential to be disastrous.
This is why it was so shocking that LCD Soundsystem announced their reunion in 2016 as they were announced as Coachella headliners. As such a proud student of music, James Murphy will be able to rhyme off countless band reunions that would be remembered as failures, and his band have an almost untouchable legacy which no doubt could have been ruined easily, so they seemed to be risking everything.
However, this felt different. For a start, it came just 5 years after the band ceremoniously disbanded with a 3-hour farewell gig, a live album and DVD as well as a documentary. This huge procession came after Murphy admitted to feeling too old to be a rockstar. But this is James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem we’re talking about, whose debut single was entitled Losing My Edge, and ageing has perhaps been the DJ-cum-songwriter’s favourite lyrical topic over the course of 3 LCD albums. If there is one band who truly fit the “meta” description, it is Murphy’s New York collective.
It should not come as a surprise then that, in the 20 months since LCD reunited, Murphy has been nothing but self-aware. This is the man who has spent almost every promotional interview apologising for reuniting the band so soon after their state funeral. In one, he was even misquoted as saying LCD Soundsystem only broke up to sell out Madison Square Garden, and in the same interview, live member Nancy Whang admitted that money played a part in her decision to get on board.
Still, the reunion will not be judged by how genuine the apologies are. What will make or break Murphy’s difficult decision is the quality of music it produces. American Dream, the band’s first full-length since 2010’s This is Happening, would set the benchmark. On the basis of this record, one of the most difficult decisions James Murphy has made in his 47 years may be one of his best.
Musically, American Dream may be the “biggest” album Murphy has ever recorded as LCD Soundsystem (the credits show that Murphy is responsible for almost 90% of all sounds on this record). In the short time it has been known to fans, the powerpoint-style artwork has been heavily criticised, however listening to the record, it makes sense as many of these tracks seem to soar well above the clouds depicted on the album’s front sleeve.
Opener oh baby is misleading in that it opens with a frenetic piano before it slows down and is carried by a slower synth beat. This is textbook Murphy – the track is a tribute to Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream but comfortably feels like an LCD Soundsystem track. It is a soaring ballad which hears the DFA Records co-founder almost crooning while comforting a lover after a nightmare. Especially in 2017, an album titled american dream may sound staunchly political, but LCD’s 4th LP is more concerned with actual dreams than The American Dream and the opener sets that theme up, with lyrics like “you’re having a bad dream / here in my arms”.
Murphy also spends a large chunk of this album’s lyrics singing about waking up – particularly on a hangover, comedown, or even both. On other voices, a more textbook LCD track than the opener, with the percussion giving the track an unmistakeably funk vibe. Murphy devotes the first verse to one of those mornings where you wake up and “the light burns your eyes”, later declaring that “these morning ablutions are all part of the dance” – possibly a reference to his newly reformed band’s signature dance-punk style.
The title track is perhaps the clearest example of the “morning after” lyrics heard on this record. On top of his idea of a waltz, created by beautiful swirling synths, Murphy delivers world-weary lyrics, declaring “you took acid and looked in the mirror / watched the beard crawl round your face” in a lyric that feels more autobiographical than he would care to admit. This track feels somewhat ironically titled as there are few political connotations to the lyrics, apart from a sarcastic mention of a Bourgeoisie revolution and the song’s climax – an ironic euphoria as Muphy belts out the album title in his best falsetto after detailing the protagonist’s discontent for almost 6 minutes.
Surprisingly, call the police, released as a double A-side with the title track, feels like the record’s political moment. To use a lazy comparison, if the title track is the record’s Someone Great, then the pulsating call the police is american dream’s answer to All My Friends. Much of the track’s 7 minutes are spent building up to the glorious crescendo – not unlike Murphy’s most iconic track under the LCD Soundsystem moniker. Lyrically, this track is political without being overly rooted in facts and realism, Murphy describes a kind of progressive social revolution, stating “the kids come out fighting and still doing what they’re told”.
call the police obviously attracted All My Friends comparisons, with a sound that most would describe as “classic LCD Soundsystem”, however many of this record’s best moments come when Murphy tries out brand new sounds. On how do you sleep?, the record’s 9 minute centrepiece, it takes 4 minutes for any prominent synths to come to the fore, and even when they do, they are immensely overpowering, making this perhaps the least danceable track in the LCD discography. Before the synths arrive, the track is carried by a massive drum sound and equally huge vocals from Murphy, who sings as if to be heard over an abyss. The lyrical tone is one of sheer disgust, aimed at DFA Records co-founder Tim Goldsworthy, who the listener is left in no doubt about Murphy’s feelings for after the hate-fuelled 9 minutes.
How do you sleep? is immediately followed by tonite, the most straight-up disco song on the record, as if James Murphy wants the listener to know that the dramatics of the previous track is not a new direction for the dance-punk icons, but another string to LCD Soundsystem’s considerable bow. The funky beat of this track genuinely sounds like what Idioteque would have sounded like had Radiohead made Kid A in the ‘80s. James Murphy’s social commentary is at its best here, critiquing modern pop music’s obsession with the night and with the moment, which is ruling “what remains of the airwaves”. tonite even features a spoken word section which qualifies the track as the record’s weirdest while simultaneously being one of its best.
Penultimate number emotional haircut is a textbook LCD Soundsystem punk track, carried by drums and guitars playing at breakneck speed. Lyrically, this is yet another James Murphy song about ageing, chronicling someone who had a dramatic haircut in an attempt to roll back the years This feels heavily dramatized, but there are aspects of his own character that Murphy will identify with.
Another LCD Soundsystem tradition that is maintained is the poignant album closer. american dream boasts black screen, a 12-minute epic dedicated to a lost friend, and all signs point towards that friend being the late David Bowie. This track’s instrumentation is intentionally subtle, carried by a drum beat and a single synth. James Murphy’s tone on this track is poetic but personal, you could imagine him saying these exact lyrics to Bowie’s face.
black screen may well be Murphy’s most introspective track yet, as he reveals a lot of guilt, stating he owes “something” to Bowie, and confesses “I’m bad with people things / but I should have tried more”.
The final lyric of american dream is a poetic ode to death – “you could be anywhere / on the black screen” and is followed by a 4 minute instrumental which gives the first chance for breath since the start of the 70 minute record. By the time this instrumental rolls around, it’d be difficult not to be sold on an LCD Soundsystem reunion.