At first, James Murphy wanted us to believe he didn’t care. Nowhere was this cynicism more apparent than in the legendary Losing My Edge. In typical post-modern bravado, Murphy lamented popular music’s devolution from a budding art form to a commodity appropriated as fashion. The kids of the new millennium turned their eclectic music tastes into status stamps, and Murphy felt utterly out of place. In a musical age when nostalgia stifles any hope of originality, how does one endeavor to create anything new? And when you’ve lived long enough to realize that everything’s been done already, why even try?
Murphy’s answer was simple. Step one: Lay bare your influences and come to terms with your lack of originality. Step two: Admit that any new music you create here and now will inexorably “borrow” from those forebears in one way or another, and admit that you simply do not care. Step three: Dance your ass off.
Who knew that over the course of three albums in five years, LCD Soundsystem could follow that formula with such ease? Murphy shamelessly stripped down the synthy sleekness of the past and repackaged it so inventively that it felt refreshing.
On LCD Soundsystem’s latest, appropriately entitled, This Is Happening, Murphy continues to demonstrate his absolute mastery for irreverence. Weeks ago, he released “Drunk Girls,” the album’s shortest, simplest track. Hedonistic without sacrificing perspective, the single swerves between the rowdy, chanted refrains of its club-punk verses and the charming heights of its emotionally charged chorus. “I believe in waking up together,” Murphy croons. “That means making eyes across the room.” The man may giggle at the absurdities of liquored excess, but he never really excludes himself from that same debauched culture. As a result, Murphy sings from a identifiable point of view without appearing too vulnerable this early on in the album.
The rest of This Is Happening follows a different trajectory than its single, evolving into a truly classic record. Each track stands alone as its own distinct electronic opus at no expense to the album’s flow.
On opener “Dance Yrself Clean,” a chorus of percussion pitter-patters around a two-toned bass as Murphy’s bare voice speaks melodically from behind the scenes. As a keyboard tune twirls into earshot, the song resounds with the raw production of an ambitious demo. As our attention begins to wane around the three-minute mark, a snare sounds off and shatters the silence, introducing a heavy, syncopated synth refrain. “Don’t you want me to wake up?” screams Murphy in response to the sudden cacophony. Fortunately, the song never quite reaches bombastic heights, even as it breaks into bursts of boisterous instrumentation that sound like Kraftwerk covering New Order.
“I Can Change,” the album’s next most radio-friendly track, finds Murphy smoothly sailing through the upper registers of his voice over a bouncy bed of synthesizers. At first Murphy bemoans the demands his lover makes of him, resisting the inevitable changes his relationship requires. Eventually, he surrenders: “I can change, I can change, I can change / If it helps you fall in love,” he professes as the wall of synth sweeps over his quickly fading voice.
No song pulls heartstrings harder than “All I Want,” a slow-burning homage to Bowie’s immortal anthem, “Heroes.” Clattering pianos adorn a swirling guitar line while Murphy bares himself with the same emotional honesty that gave “All My Friends” its poetically melancholic pulse. He continuously begs for pity and “bitter tears,” even as the song’s soothing tones gradually lose their innocence and begin to decay. Eventually, frenzied dissonance overtakes the melody, and Murphy is left wailing into the night, hopelessly pleading to be taken home.
Above everything, This Is Happening represents LCD Soundsystem at its most impulsive. But then again, on an album purported to be Murphy’s last under the LCD Soundsystem moniker, how could we possibly expect restraint from a man who rarely exhibits any? If the cover photograph indicates anything about what to find within, it is an album rich with Murphy’s finest, most brazen songwriting. On “You Wanted a Hit,” Murphy laughs in the face of a singles-hungry record label by providing it with nine minutes of driving guitar and bass interspersed with brief bouts of synthesized chaos. A seemingly-intoxicated Murphy rambles through the comedic trance of “Pow Pow” and recycled sounds from the studio trickle through the haze. Only Murphy’s composed lunacy could have conceived of centering the psychedelic drone of “Somebody’s Calling Me” around two piano notes separated by a whole step.
As the looping tones and jittery guitars close out Murphy’s wistful vision on “Home,” the resulting catharsis feels complete. In the end, This Is Happening does not only allow LCD Soundsystem its last laugh on the dance floor but also provides Murphy with his final stomping ground. Throughout the entire album, not a single moment feels free from his artistic whims. We find Murphy at his most intimate and his most mature. He has created something devastatingly unassuming that invites you in and never lets go. Regardless of his intentions years ago, This Is Happening serves as a testament to James Murphy’s talented ability to care.
The album, currently streaming on LCD Soundsystem’s website, is slated for release on May 17.