What happens when you can’t locate the profundity you’re tasked with putting into words? That’s the issue that I face with LCD Soundsystem’s fourth album and first in seven years, American Dream. I like the album—it sounds great, as all LCD Soundsystem albums have, and there are a few songs I have returned to regularly—but I’ve been struggling to find a deeper meaning in the music, and I’m starting to wonder whether or not that’s my fault.
This dilemma is strictly one that someone who writes about music as part of their career would face. Most people listen to music, enjoy it (or not), and maybe have a few drunken or bong-inspired bull sessions with their friends about how the music makes them feel—exactly the experience that I’ve had for six of the 15 years that LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy has hovered in, over, and around the indie-public consciousness. During those years and then some, LCD Soundsystem’s music meant something to me, but attempting to put it into words has proved a futile and extremely frustrating exercise.
Is it because I’m getting older? Maybe. We all are—including Murphy himself, obviously, who’s made a career out of aging with acerbic grace. His first musical introduction to the larger world, 2002’s “Losing My Edge,” was effectively an eight-minute piss-take on how it feels to be old while you’re surrounded by young people—a hilarious slice of scenester paranoia that was also astoundingly prophetic of what was to come. “I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets/ And borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s,” he intoned with a flippant air, over the rude hiss of drum machines and whacked-out bass, later offering, “Everybody thought I was crazy…I’ve never been wrong.”
As it turns out, Murphy didn’t so much lose his edge as the edges surrounding him began to soften. 2005’s LCD Soundsystem remains the project’s most explicitly raucous album, its finality-musing closing track—the Brian Eno-indebted “Great Release”—representing a taste of what was thematically to come. Sound of Silver from two years later set the controls for the heart of the heart, a self-consciously “classic” album partially inspired by the encroaching spectre of death (including the passing away of Murphy’s therapist, which inspired the mournful pulse of “Someone Great”) that stands as one of the 2000s’ greatest genre-synthesis achievements.
At the top of the 2010s, James Murphy turned 40, and with the milestone came what was supposed to be LCD Soundsystem’s final album, This Is Happening, along with what was supposed to be their final show—a gigantic Madison Square Garden blowout that has proved something of his personal albatross since meaningfully returning to the project that made him a name. At the time, I loved This Is Happening, and you can bet that I was at that “final” show. I loved both, but this is where my my retroactive grasp on “Why?” starts to slip. Until recently, I hadn’t listened to This Is Happening since, let’s say mid-2012 (that might be a generous estimate), and to this day I feel like its greatest achievement stands as being another great-sounding LCD Soundsystem album.
That’s how I feel about American Dream, too, and not much more. I tend to avoid reading what my peers have to say about music I plan to write about, so at this present moment I’m not aware of what levels of depth and profundity others have mined out of this album. I’m sure they did, and I’m even surer that I can’t. Off the dome, perhaps the most insightful thing I have to say about American Dream is that I first realized that I substantially enjoyed listening to it after hearing the pulsing void of its 11-minute closing track, “Black Screen,” playing in my local Williamsburg coffee shop, the sun appositionally shining through the windows. That seems fitting, maybe to the point where it’s a funny joke one would make about the type of person who would enjoy LCD Soundsystem’s music. It’s maybe the deepest thing I have to say about the album as a whole.
Again, I feel age comes into play here. A friend remarked to me recently that she enjoyed listening to American Dream while traveling to a city she used to live in because it reminded her of the good times she had listening to LCD Soundsystem in that city. I have my own memories of being in my twenties, looking out the window of an NYU shuttle from an early evening class and believing that Murphy was getting to the literal heart of something “true”—a ridiculous thing to believe, perhaps, when you’re 21 and wasted and listening to a guy in his 30s sing about getting older in a scene you’re not and never will be a part of, but what is being young if not seeing a mirror in everything you look at?
Maybe this all cements that, in 2017, American Dream elicits nostalgia for a time when young people listened to LCD Soundsystem more. Such nostalgia exists as a weird feedback loop—a wistfulness for a time when a guy considerably older than me tempered his own cynicism with wistfulness about getting older, over music that mined the work of his own musical heroes as a wistful gesture towards those artists’ glory days. There’s something about LCD Soundsystem’s music that has always existed, to some extent, in the past—that self-consciously “classic” feel that I referenced earlier—to the point where the future has been tantalizingly non-existent.
Dance and electronic music has long had a fickle relationship with the future, but its big-tent iteration—”EDM,” for the marketers out there—often takes a “live for tonight” attitude that encapsulates the fatalism of being young and unsure of what tomorrow will bring, an infatuation with the ticking second-hand of the present moment. Murphy and the EDM kids may find different ways to chart their own paths—the former through solitary crate-digging, the latter through communal hedonism—but they both have no clue where that path will lead next, and they like it that way.
On both myself and culture at large, the effectiveness of EDM’s economic and generational nihilism has trended downward—and I think I feel the same way about the backwards-gazing familiarity that Murphy still works in. Some things about American Dream feel a little too familiar—not to the point where it feels like LCD Soundsystem’s return is unwarranted, but enough to make you wonder how many more side-long barnburning dance numbers he can turn out before sounding truly exhausted.
Perhaps that’s why the album’s darker, most un-LCD moments are its most alluring: the Suicide-ish howl of “How Do You Sleep?” (a clear hat-tip to the recently deceased Alan Vega), the mumbled regrets of “Black Screen,” and the album’s standout title track. The sad synth sighs of “American Dream,” resembling something off Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s seminal Dazzle Ships, act as a blissfully celestial backdrop for its protagonist ruminating on existence following an acid trip and a one-night-stand. (Scenesters may get older just like everyone else, but their preoccupations never die out.)
“So get up and stop your complaining,” Murphy sings with a tender lilt, “You know you’re the only one who’s been destroying all the fun/ Look what happened when you’re dreaming/ Then punch yourself in the face.” It’s a funny line, perhaps suggesting that there’s a lot you miss when you’re preoccupied with the same dogged pursuits you’ve faced for years, whether that be making music or writing about it. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be that deep—maybe the depth in question doesn’t even exist. Maybe, under the veneer of self-importance that’s layered over LCD Soundsystem and so much other music, sometimes it’s just better to just listen and not think too much about what it all means. It’s a disappointing conclusion to reach, but only until the next song comes on.
Larry Fitzmaurice is a senior culture editor for VICE Digital. Follow him on Twitter.
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