LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’ – Review

7 Sep

It’s fair to say that James Murphy gets a mixed reception in Lizzie Goldman’s recent tome on New York’s indie rock revival of the early oughties, ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’. At different points he’s described as aggressive, naive, an underdog, a genius, a sociopath and a dictator. It’s probably nothing he hasn’t heard, or tossed around in his head, a million times before. Self awareness is the weight around his neck. But where he’s used it as a tool in the past (most brilliantly on the still relevant ‘Loosing my Edge’), it now drags him down to the floor. ‘American Dream’, his first album since 2011’s ‘This is Happening’, is a weighty, anxious, self conscious record that drags so much more than anything he’s released in the past but hits hardest when it trades in the irony for sincerity.

Of course it’s the album fans had no reason to expect. When Murphey called time on LCD Soundsystem after their triumphant Madison Square Garden shows six years ago, he’d done more than most musicians can dream of: and why not kill your band when its young, and leave a beautiful corpse? The trilogy of albums he’d put out at that point were an almost untouchable, impossible collection of dance rock hybrids that made good on two decades worth of singles, remixes, engineering, production work and general rock geek fandom promise. You could understand why he wanted to stick rather than twist.

But Murphey is nothing if not a rock Historian, and as such he will have known that very few farewell tours are ever actually that. Just as The Band eventually returned after ‘The Last Waltz’ and The Eagles reappeared with their ‘hell freezes over’ tour, so too, he must have anticipated, the day would come when he’d want to get his own band back together. If that leaves a general bad taste in some fans mouths (particularly after revelations that those Madison Square Garden ‘farewell’ shows were partly labelled as such for financial reasons) then that’s nothing that another classic album wouldn’t remedy.

In some respects it feels like no time has passed at all. ‘American Dream’ sounds like a logical extension of ‘This is Happening’s’ post punk and art pop leanings. Fans will recognise the skinny beats and stodgy run times, the array of vintage synthesisers and the cowbells. But there is a darkness that has crept in to the picture as well, belied by the tacky sunshine and blue skies artwork that adorns the front cover. It’s a darkness that isn’t particularly pleasant. On ‘Someone Great’ and ‘All My Friends’, songs with similarly heavy themes, you felt like you were dancing in to oblivion but on ‘American Dream’ there is no such imperative. Instead, you feel like you’re sinking slowly, or drowning, in to the depths. A change in tone and style was likely, necessary even, but the execution is too often cumbersome and laboured.

And yet Murphy remains a singular visionary. When he dares to venture down new avenues, the results are as enticing as ever. Opening track ‘Oh Baby’ is old and new at the same time. It begins with a trickling snare, before familiar synth arpeggios burst in, with James Murphey giving us his best croon to date. The song drips with a sweet sentiment that was previously only inferred from subtext. At first glance, LCD Soundsystem have aged into pretty romantics – an interesting twist. The subtle innovations continue on track two, the limber ‘Other Voices’, which feels like everything you loved about LCD Soundsystem with infinitely more mature funk.

In fact, much of the first half of ‘American Dream’ is impressive. ‘I Used to’ is slow to wake up, with a beat that drags itself out of bed, but eventually settles in to a groovy pop song. There are Post punk guitars thrashing about on the dense ‘Change Yr Mind’, that sound like absolutely delicious approximations of Robert Fripp’s work on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ album. Amidst the dawdling rhythms and patient swells of ‘How Do You Sleep’ Murphey hits upon the albums most transcendent moments. The song is a none too subtle dig at former DFA co-owner, and best friend, Tim Goldsworthy, that looks back on a lost friendship with a mixture of sadness, resentment, jealousy, anger and repressed fondness. The rising drama is reason enough to justify the ten minute running time.

The tone sours considerably after ‘How Do You Sleep’ and the ideas feel less original and exploratory. ‘Tonite’ is a cheap rehash of any given New Order song that theories about getting old and becoming out of touch. Yep, you may have heard Murphy on that subject before – and actually he sells it most convincingly here, because he’s never sounded this old and out of touch before. He’s still tugging at the same anxieties: losing track of reality, and you friends. He’s still name checking obscure bands and still subtly shooting side glances to his knowing audience. He’s still struggling to get out of bed (literally). He’s still contemplating what comes next. If he sounded anxious and defeated before then that was never borne out by the music or melodies. On American Dream’s second half, he sounds positively defeated.

The most tiresome song on the record is also the one on which you feel Murphy stakes the most. The pretentious ‘Black Screen’ is a missed opportunity. It nabs the strong melody from Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Sometimes, Always’ and reflects on the passing of friend and mentor David Bowie. The song cuts through the irony and winks with clear headed reflection and undiluted sensitivity. Ultimately though it meanders in to nothingness – a repeated motif of ‘you could be anywhere on the black screen’, dirge synths going absolutely nowhere for about five minutes longer than necessary, and ultimately a pulsating bass note, repeating into the distance. It’s a good summary of the album. It’s full of good ideas that are snuffed out by pomposity, pretension and repetition. ‘American Dream’ is not an abject failure by any stretch but it’s certainly not an equal of what came before.

2005’s ‘LCD Soundsystem’ started a conversation between the futurist pop of Britney Spears, the underground Bass music of the UK, and classic indie rock. It sounded important, relevant, in of itself and the world it existed in. ‘American Dream’ is far more insular, existing in a James Murphy vacuum. It does not attempt to engage with contemporary pop, dance or indie, instead it feeds off its own past, and the further past of the 1980s. For the length of time it takes you to consider this, ‘American Dream’ is a mammoth disappointment. Then you can kind of take it for what it is; an exquisitely produced, hit and miss, single minded, defiantly middle age statement on one man by one man. American Dream might be a stretch – but it’s certainly a James Murphey dream.

6.5/10

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