LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy samples the past and creates dance record bliss
By Peter Galvin
MUSIC It's getting more and more difficult to talk about new music without comparing it with the work of some other band, or to whichever Stones song the guitar reminds you of. It's useful to be able to pick a reference point and say "It sounds like that," but you're walking a slippery slope when you imply that all music is directly derivative. James Murphy is probably incredibly aware of this tendency to make comparisons. As LCD Soundsystem, Murphy crafts intricate, dense dance music, but a quick peek into his record bin likely indicates where his true passion lies. It is a bin well-stocked with records from Bowie, Eno, Talking Heads, and other 1970s rock icons. It is not so strange that Murphy, 40 years young, would be a fan of '70s rock. But he does seem an unlikely figure to emerge as a 21st-century musician who not-so-subtly melds the music of his formative years into contemporary dance hits.
Murphy's transformation into indie icon happened almost overnight. First single "Losing My Edge" on Murphy's own DFA records was one of the most buzzed-about songs of 2002. But in the years leading up to its self-titled album in 2005, LCD Soundsystem soon found itself caught between two futures: solid, if silly, dance music and intricate explorations of genre. In those days, Murphy tended to ad lib goofy lyrics over his tracks well after the musical parts were recorded, inadvertently threatening to sabotage dancefloor-fillers like "Yeah" and "Daft Punk is Playing at My House" with self-conscious sarcasms. It wasn't until LCD's second album, Sound of Silver, that Murphy proved how seriously he takes his craft, displaying a happy medium between his urges for humor and reference, and allowing his songs to create their own happy personalities.
This is Happening is LCD Soundsystem's third album and it's all happy personality, marking it as the best representation of Murphy's signature mix of dance and '70s rock. The album cover showcases Murphy in a suit and tie that recalls Robert Longo's "Men in the Cities" work, or perhaps riffs on the poster for Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads performance film Stop Making Sense. Though the cover is an urgent reference to those other works, it announces Happening as the album where Murphy fully directs his self-awareness toward creating music that recalls and riffs on, but never replicates. For every track on Happening, there is a clear '70s counterpart (the official tally heavily favors the production of Brian Eno and the vocal affectations of David Byrne), but they all surge with freshness and originality.
Opening track "Dance Yrself Clean" exhibits mumble-mouthed vocals and a drum/bass combo that wouldn't be out of place with the low-key meditations from Murphy's recent Greenberg soundtrack, at least until the three-minute mark, when the song explodes with sound. If it were possible to live within a song, I'd live here, in the reverberation of drums and synths that keep the song rolling another five minutes. "All I Want" is a direct homage to Bowie's Berlin era; Eno guitar fuzz swirls around the refrain "All I want/Is your pity" before laser show synths create the impression that the vinyl is literally melting as it spins. "One Touch" and "Pow Pow" have Murphy doing his best Talking Heads and "You Wanted a Hit" is the album's one concession to Murphy's meta-humor, as he snottily expounds on the band's unwillingness to conform to expectations, but the result is a song so layered and catchy that it hardly takes away from the album's consistent pacing.
Pacing is a big factor in This is Happening's success, and many of Happening's nine songs would not fare as well apart from the album experience. On its release in March, "Drunk Girls" struck me as a particularly hackneyed stand-alone single, one that threatened to turn off as many listeners as "North American Scum" did from 2007's Sound of Silver. So it comes as a surprise to hear how fitting the song is within the context of the album itself. The chanty back and forth of "drunk girls" and "drunk boys," interrupted by the silver-tongued chorus "I believe in waking up together/So that means making eyes across the room," is likely to score the trailer for whatever terrible dating show MTV comes up with this summer. But the song doesn't deserve that grim fate. It's part of a tangible tone and feel that makes Happening that rare dance record that's best enjoyed as an album rather than as a collection of singles.
It may be all the rage to reference '70s and '80s music these days, but Murphy isn't that ironic hipster mashing up dance beats with dad-rock, or that London band mimicking the Clash. Playing "spot the influences" in This is Happening is easy, but I don't believe Murphy intentionally sets out to replicate the records he grew up with — they're an integral a part of who he is. In a 2005 Pitchfork interview, Murphy admitted, "I'm not wandering under a banner of originality or a myth of no influences. There's no purity in what I'm doing." But Happening emerges as an undeniably pure-sounding album anyway. Drawing from the familiar sounds of an era, Murphy has gone beyond recapturing a spark that was already there. He's created a whole new reference point.
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