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?