BOWIE TO JAMES MURPHY: "IT SHOULD MAKE YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE."
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
I was first introduced to LCD Soundsystem during my early years as an undergraduate. While I can't pinpoint the exact time or place, I do remember the reaction. Their sound had a similar flavor to some of the other indie, electronic outfits of the time (Hot Chip, Cut Copy, MGMT), but they felt different. Listening to them came with a distinct uplifting quality. They were a crowd favorite at "Hot Knees," a weekly indie dance night at the now-defunct Green Room in Kent, OH. As soon as "North American Scum" would spill from the speakers, the bevy of hipsters crowding the tiny venue took on a noticeable sunnier mood.
While much of LCD Soundsystem’s music is indeed great for dancing, some songs took on more of an underwater ease, perfect for midnight walks or late-night essay writing. They're a group capable of time travel in that whenever I hear them, it takes me back to Northeast Ohio during a time when everything was buzzing and inspired (with plenty of dancing).
Now, seven years following their supposed split, James Murphy and the same troupe of middle-aged ex-punks are back with their new album american dream. After my first run-through of the album, it struck me how similar it sounded to their previous releases. The experiences of a seven-year gap didn’t alter the sound much but it did inject it with a darker mood. While it’s hard not to assume the political from an album with “American” in the name, Murphy has been rather quiet about the implication. He attributes some inspiration from how “weird” it is to be human, especially now. In a New York Times interview, drummer Pat Mahoney stated that while the album is: “not overtly political… I think it contains some of the turmoil that the world is experiencing right now.”
While some fans have been left feeling duped after the notion that the band was done for good, LCD Soundsystem’s return—and subsequent album—has been met with mostly critical acclaim. The new songs maintain their same disco-punk, slow-build sonic atmosphere. For a group with a front man who is well into his 40’s, the sound has an energy of youth. But too, it houses an aftertaste of an embittered adulthood.
James Murphy has long considered himself more sound engineer than rockstar, hence why he felt it best to split up the band in the first place. A perceived blend of introverted creative and micromanaging hardhead, every project he takes on has to align with a certain set of rules. This is why it came as a surprise when he recently told Uncut in an interview that: "the decision-making matrix I have for the band is almost entirely gut." The songs are woven from distant and present memories with a healthy dose of 80s synth and multi-toned lyrics. Most compelling though is David Bowie’s hand in making the album happen. Murphy was brewing the idea of reviving LCD Soundsystem and sought the ear of Bowie as someone he knew to have sound, honest advice. When approached, Bowie asked Murphy if it made him uncomfortable. When Murphy said it did, he responded, “Good. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re not doing anything.”
The progression of american dream moves from New-Wave-influenced electro beats to tribal-esque drums to steady, understated repeated movements. In “oh baby,” there’s “always a side door into the dark”—directly reminiscent of the spaces that first popularized their music: the indie bars and dimly lit dance venues with doors leading to small squares of concrete allocated for smokers and those trying to wick off sweat. Murphy dips readily into the creative well, his own experiences (bad and good), and life in New York City. The lyrics at times deliver murky advice, as in “tonite”: “Truth be told, we all have the same end but I'm telling you, this is the best news you're getting all week.” Political notes pierce through in songs like “call the police” and “how do you sleep?” The collection trails off in a wilting piano fade in “black screen,” a song widely perceived to be a coded tribute to David Bowie.
Out of a line from their second song brings likely the best representation of their long-awaited return: “we’ve got friends who are calling us home.” I’d say for most, it marks a welcome homecoming.