In Spite of Death: LCD Soundsystem’s AMERICAN DREAM
Watching your idols die will change the way you plot your own life.
On several occasions, James Murphy’s told a story about growing up in New Jersey – a record store rat who’d buy wax singles and LPs based solely on their covers. One day, while flipping through a music mag, his brother pointed to a picture of David Bowie (in full Ziggy Stardust regalia) and said, "you see that guy? He was the original punk." Like a wise little nerd, Murphy became obsessed with Bowie ever since. So, when he was invited to work with the Rock n’ Roll God as a producer on his final record, Blackstar, the retired neo disco king understandably jumped at the opportunity to even exist in the same room as his hero. Murphy ended up becoming overwhelmed by the entire experience, opting to play "a little percussion" on a few tracks, but backed out of any sort of production duties.
Despite his cold feet, Murphy and Bowie became pals during those sessions, and met up again later in New York City. Bowie played Murphy demos he'd just recorded with a jazz collection, and the artists discussed making a record together, just the two of them. At some point, a conversation occurred where Bowie asked Murphy why he'd retired his band, LCD Soundsystem. Murphy responded with his usual litany of reasons, which amounted to essentially desiring a life outside of constant recording and touring. But Murphy also said he was thinking of getting LCD back together. "Does that make you uncomfortable?" Bowie asked, and Murphy replied that it did. "Good - it should. You should be uncomfortable,” was the observation Bowie had to offer.
Blackstar was released on January 8, 2016. David Bowie died on January 10, 2016. James Murphy will never get to produce a Bowie record, nor will the two ever collaborate on their own separate project. But the advice Bowie bestowed upon Murphy at least led to the reformation of LCD Soundsystem – a reunion that’s resulted in American Dream, their first record in seven years. Despite their blowout Madison Square Garden “funeral” show (which was documented in Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern's superlative concert film, Shut Up and Play the Hits), and Murphy's subsequent endeavors (a line of gourmet coffee, acting roles in indie films such as Rick Alverson's The Comedy), the crew is back together for an album that's easily their most experimental, and seemed to take Bowie's recommendation regarding one's comfort zone to heart. American Dream is the least danceable LCD record, while still maintaining its mastermind’s no-nonsense penchant for undeniably catchy melodies.
Murphy – who’s long maintained there's never been "a band", just "records" when discussing his numerous partnerships with Death From Above cohorts – has always been the pop music equivalent to Brian De Palma. A consummate technical perfectionist whose own output is constantly in dialogue with its influences, the specter of another revered electronic master (Suicide frontman Alan Vega, who passed this past July) haunts the opening track of American Dream. "Oh Baby" is a reimagining of Vega's stark lullaby, "Dream Baby Dream", as Murphy doodles with synth squiggles and metronomic tics, before slathering his Orbison croon over the aped proceedings. When compared to "Dance Yrself Clean" – the near-nine-minute banger lead from This Is Happening – the intent couldn't be more inverted from LCD's previous work. We may have shown up for a celebration, but the DJ’s spinning a golden wake procession, ostensibly attempting to comfort any who've felt like the last legend-robbing year has been a nightmare they cannot awaken from.
"Oh Baby" isn't the first time Murphy's rejiggered Vega/Suicide in his own image (see: LCD's '09 rendition of "Bye Bye Bayou"), nor is it the first time he's so blatantly fused another's melodies with his own work. Murphy's long been in love with self-mythologizing; his initial single, of course, positioned the once restless DJ as a trendsetting hipster who witnessed every great moment in the history of post-'60s dance/rock music. Yet with "Oh Baby", Murphy’s literally sliding his own voice in with a previously unattainable muse, and then pushing the pitch higher, soaring above a genius who came before. Even when "All I Want" nakedly stole the central guitar chug from Bowie's "Heroes", there was a sense of absolute reverence – Murphy standing shoulder-to-shoulder with one of the greatest who ever lived and smiling up at the Spaceman with childlike admiration. On American Dream, he's done playing in another's sandbox, transforming the pen into a private beach on which he's able to max, relax and throw his own somber rager.
Melancholy may abound, but the party kids who pioneered their own strain of dance rock at DFA are still present and accounted for. "Tonite" is a wonky bit of robo-funk, while "Emotional Haircut" begs you to holler along with its goofy speak/sing/shout dynamics, Murphy’s love of driving, unstoppable percussion and metallic bass combining for another aural assault on one of the shortest tracks American Dream has to offer. Just like Sound of Silver and This Is Happening, 9-10 tracks is a deceptive length when most of the tunes range between 5-7 minutes (with closer "Black Screen" now standing as LCD's longest LP entry at twelve and change, beating out even the “Pretentious Mix” of “Yeah”). In construction, American Dream is a rather familiar affair, but in the best way possible, as Murphy never forgets that people primarily listen to pop music to capture a sense of fun, as well as much needed emotional catharsis. Even when things take a dark turn on “Call the Police”, questioning the ethics of the times in which we live, you still want to roll the windows down in your car while it blares. The title track then eases you into a Lynchian haze immediately after*, delivering a doo-wop slow dance complete with Phil Spector “sha-dum, sha-dum” backing vocals during its peak.
Nevertheless, death is very much on Murphy's mind throughout the whole of American Dream, as warnings of mortality are peppered into "Other Voices" and "I Used To", before completely coming to a head on the album show stopper "How Do You Sleep?" After a build of "Cat People" drums and those "feel it in your gut" synths Murphy has owned throughout his career, the singer’s howls about "standing on the shore, facing East" give way to an admission that "you warned me about the cocaine, and then dove right in." Hard living has always been a part of Murphy's narrative. After all, this is the man who reportedly celebrated his 30th birthday with thirty lines of coke on a Roxy Music record instead of a cake. But he's also not a fool to believe one can keep partying like this forever. Whatever's off in that Eastern distance is waiting to claim his life, should the nearing-fifty frontman keep pushing his luck with the brown liquor and white powder. It’s the ominously prophetic sequel to Sound of Silver’s “Something Great”, as the Devil stares back at James from the opposite horizon.
For some, the return of LCD Soundsystem is going to feel like an emotional betrayal following their very publicly mourned disbanding. To see Murphy return less than a decade later superficially resembles a cynical cash-in from an artist whose entire brand has been based on ironically detached sincerity. But the execution of American Dream is so sobering and precise that it's difficult to label the record anything but utterly triumphant. James Murphy is addressing death – both of his idols and his own artistic departure – and stating that it cannot be permanent for LCD, at least while he still draws breath. In a career filled with brazen acts of self-aggrandizing audaciousness, American Dream may be Murphy’s most daring feat of all.
*Side Note: it’s a shame LCD weren’t invited to the Roadhouse during Twin Peaks: The Return, as this track would’ve killed as a closer to one of those hours.