Amid all the celebration and controversy that greeted LCD Soundsystem’s un-retirement in 2016, it was easy to forget how much James Murphy’s grandiose exit five years prior had elevated his band. In the ’00s, LCD Soundsystem was a critical favorite with a growing fanbase, but it was hardly the generation-defining act that some have retroactively pitched them as. Even in the niche-y world of indie rock, LCD took a backseat to Arcade Fire, MGMT, and Fleet Foxes in terms of album sales. They never had a hit song as big as signature tunes by The Killers or even Franz Ferdinand. Playing a gig at a venue the size of Madison Square Garden was an anomaly for LCD Soundsystem, not the norm.
But that exit… it was the brainchild of a guy who knows his rock history. LCD’s “final” concert and accompanying documentary, Shut Up And Play The Hits, manufactured an “end of an era” touchstone that imbued all of Murphy’s prior work with heightened significance. While I’m sure a self-conscious post-punk aesthete like Murphy has little use for the boomer-era hippies that populate The Last Waltz, he no doubt shares Robbie Robertson’s penchant for self-mythology.
Like Robertson wearily bemoaning the rigors of “the road” to Martin Scorsese, Murphy time and again has reiterated that his decision to preemptively end LCD Soundsystem was to due to his reluctance to engage with the exhausting music-industry machine. “I had no desire to be famous,” Murphy recently told Vulture. “I’d met a decent amount of famous people and thought, ‘This is not a life that I want to live.'”
If Murphy is sincere — and I don’t doubt that he is — he has unwittingly revealed his own sense of self-importance, given that he’s resolutely not famous outside of certain neighborhoods in the nation’s largest cities. Instead of breaking up his band, Murphy could’ve avoided the fame by simply moving to Sheboygan.
But I’m sure Murphy’s rock scholarship also taught him that farewell concerts usually don’t stand the test of time. The Band (sans Robertson) returned seven years after their grand finale, so what’s wrong with LCD Soundsystem coming back, especially when it results in an album that (mostly) represents a return to form? Nothing at all. But to say that American Dream, with all of its technical brilliance and musical magnetism, justifies the comeback doesn’t quite let Murphy off the hook.
Back in the LCD 1.0 days, Murphy was an underdog, an over-the-hill shlub who willed himself to indie stardom in spite of having the fashion sense of Interpol’s dry-cleaner, a know-it-all Tarantino figure for aspirational music nerds who long dreamed of seeing their own names in the liner notes. But Murphy is no longer that guy. He’s now a winebar proprietor who wincingly name-drops David Bowie in interviews and is described as a “sociopath” by a former friend and businesses partner in Lizzy Goodman’s recent book Meet Me In The Bathroom. James Murphy is harder to cheer for now, and American Dream is easier to admire than it is to love.
Arriving after more than a year of LCD’s victory laps on the festival circuit, American Dream has a certain baked-in awkwardness, seeing as how This Is Happening appeared to have been deliberately crafted as a “final” LP, with its mournful vibe and numerous pleas to “take me home,” which Murphy expounded upon in even more voluminous promotional interviews. So, American Dream must then be a “return” record, but a return of what kind?
The album title suggests a “state of the union”-style LP, with a philosophical depth that’s underlined by the Infinite Jest–quoting cover. But American Dream isn’t really concerned with current events or anything else that doesn’t exist outside of Murphy’s usual purview, which is songs that express white-guy, middle-aged angst about losing one’s vitality. In the title track, Murphy recounts the morning after a one-night stand, in which the previous night’s bliss leaves the narrator feeling empty. (“In the morning everything’s clearer / When the sunlight exposes your age.”) Similarly, “Call The Police” observes protestors (“triggered kids and fakers and some questionable views”) only from a dispassionate remove.
As a lyricist, Murphy has only ever been capable of commenting on what’s five feet in front of him, so expecting or even desiring political commentary from American Dream is probably misguided. But the ambitious posturing of American Dream does distract from what’s essentially more of the same from LCD Soundsystem. At times, Murphy doesn’t even bother with the distractions, as the bored-dude party music of “Tonite” unapologetically presents itself as boilerplate LCD.
By the way, boilerplate LCD can still be pretty damn rousing. A lot about “Tonite” makes me roll my eyes, starting with Murphy’s passive-aggressive defensiveness about his own hipness. “I’m a reminder, the hobbled veteran, of the disc-shop inquisition” — yeah yeah, you’re 47, most of the people who like your band are old, too, dude. But those keyboard and drum sounds? Those cyborg backing vocals? The way the song builds over several minutes like one party-drug surge? Man. That creep can roll. All of the obsessive-compulsive affectations that rub me the wrong way with Murphy as a lyricist continue to pay off big time with Murphy as an architect of sprawling dance-rock tracks.
I could isolate dozens of other small moments on American Dream that have been just as ingeniously crafted for maximum effect. The warm hum of feedback that opens “Emotional Haircuit.” The spindly Fripp-tastic guitar that cuts through “Change Yr. Mind.” The way those John Carpenter horror-movie synths enter into “How Do You Sleep?” The adrenaline-fueled amalgam of Ege Bamyasiand “Where The Streets Have No Name” that is “Call The Police.” Even when Murphy’s self-aggrandizing borders on unseemly, like on the 12-minute closer “Black Screen,” in which he likens Bowie to “a father” after working on Blackstar as a hired gun, I can’t deny his ability to vividly repurpose the raw sonic materials of so many “cool” underground records from the ’70s and ’80s in musically exciting ways.
Murphy has always been at his best when he’s been able to apply his craft in the service of achieving emotional catharsis, as opposed to merely expressing his own considerable cleverness — this is why the masses love “All My Friends” and not “Losing My Edge.” When viewed charitably, the reunion and subsequent reunion record can be seen as “emotional” gestures, forever mussing up the initial perfection of LCD’s stage-managed career arc over the course of the first three albums. Murphy is back because he wants to be, credibility be damned. If only American Dream moved me as much as it impressed me. It’s a triumph that makes me feel ambivalent.
Again, I’m reminded of Robbie Robertson, a great musician and genius songwriter who also seems like an insufferable boor. Murphy is another master who I feel compelled to mock rather than praise. He’s incredibly talented and a bit of a schmuck. Shut up and play the hits, indeed.