Mini Series: The Evolution of LCD Soundsystem

By Mike O’Brien

The music industry’s indelible legends often share a clear journey. In youth, they are rambunctious, colourful, yearning for rebellion, demanding of change. Then age has a habit of mellowing spirit. It’s the difference between Bowie’s explosive 1971 classic Hunky Dory, whose premiere track Changes is an indictment of authoritarian adulthood, and 2016’s Blackstar, a sombre collection of deathbed reflections. But LCD Soundsystem was born in twilight. Indeed, its first words were ‘I’m losing my edge; the kids are coming up from behind.’ Its mastermind and frontman, James Murphy, begins his musical journey by acquiescing with obsolescence. Seventeen years and four studio albums later, Murphy, a self-proclaimed relic of a bygone era, stands an immortalised titan of contemporary dance punk.

Having spent most of his twenties a directionless, dead-end musician, Murphy was short on time to make amends. ‘Twenty-six seemed a little too old to be doing nothing’, he lamented in a PSL interview, where he also branded himself an ‘abject failure’. His 2002 premiere single as LCD Soundsystem, Losing My Edge, was a curiously resigned inauguration. The song explores Murphy’s earlier frustrations as a DJ in NYC, where he experienced fleeting popularity before other DJs began playing the same records, much to Murphy’s ire. Eventually, his bitterness would subside into the realisation that he’d grown defensive over records he didn’t even produce. Losing My Edge, then, is a humorously hyperbolic character study of a worn-out record store snob, running low on time and relevance, desperately clinging to a sense of pride in the accomplishments of his betters, and nothing to say for himself but ‘I was there!’.

Losing My Edge was a surprise sensation. Produced by a 32-year-old, chubby, and visually unremarkable Murphy well past his alleged prime, the song was lambasted by his loved ones who urged him not to release it. Nevertheless, the single saw the light of day to uproarious critical applause. It wasan inventive reinvigoration of electronic music in general that would come to define the LCD template for years to come. A music production eargasm, the trackis chock-full of homages to Murphy’s key musical inspirations, and a linear climb of infectious beeps, whirs, and whistles that never stops experimenting. If most songs on a chart hover predictably between verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, Losing My Edge is a line constantly moving forwards and upwards to explore how far its sound can go, rounding off with an explosive crescendo. It was lyrically endearing, a self-effacing mockery of his chagrined and unaccomplished self and the combative atmosphere of musical snobbery. Murphy became unwittingly cool, and LCD Soundsystem was born.

A self-titled and self-produced studio album followed. It would be the most volatile, energetic, danceable one Murphy would produce. The album LCD Soundsystem is a rollercoaster, a mishmash of abrasive electronica that pays frequent tribute to Murphy’s contemporaries. Daft Punk is Playing at My House, a tongue-in-cheek dance track about a guy desperately obsessing over a party that Murphy’s beloved duo Daft Punk would hypothetically headline, became their most commercially successful single. But it wouldn’t be until 2007 that LCD Soundsystem would truly come into their own with Sound of Silver, an album so pristine that many consider it Murphy’s magnum opus.

Sound of Silver is unquestionably amongst the greatest albums of the 2000s. Like LCD Soundsystem, it plays with the very fabric of what constitutes a song, a Frankensteinian amalgam of thronging electronic layers that somehow click perfectly. But what sets Sound of Silver apart is its thoughtful and sincere lyricism. Murphy’s comedy is still present in places; North American Scum, for instance, is a catchy rebuttal of the shtick LCD Soundsystem put up with as Americans on tour in Europe. But All My Friends is an anthem of waning adolescence, a song about the birth of nostalgia that asks mournful twenty-somethings: where are your friends tonight? The lyrical highlight of the album however is Someone Great, a song dedicated to Murphy’s late therapist who galvanised him out of fear-induced paralysis and into the pursuit of a dream. Though a personal message, Someone Great is a profoundly heartful expression of grief that touches all; ‘to tell the truth I saw it coming, the way you were breathing. But nothing can prepare you for it, the voice on the other end’.Rounding off the album is New York I Love You, but You’re Bringing Me Down, a curiously acoustic lament on the cultural decline of Murphy’s hometown. As a product, Sound of Silveris a foray into the mature commentary that would eventually transform LCD Soundsystem forever.

LCD’s next album, 2010’s This is Happening, comes from a newly secure Murphy, one who finds comfort in the perspective and security of industry success. In Pow Pow, Murphy reflects on the artistic advantages innate to both the insider and the outsider perspectives on making records. You Wanted A Hit, in its ten minute excellence, is a refusal to produce tightly-packaged conventional ‘hits’ in favour of LCD’s signature marathons. But This Is Happening is also the most accessible and conventional album by LCD Soundsystem, with songs like Drunk Girls andOne Touch serving as the self-proclaimed ‘dumb stuff’ to shuffle bodies, whilst Dance Yrself Clean, I Can Change, and Home explore the forlorn frustrations of perfectionism in the trials of youth.

This is Happening was to be the final LCD Soundsystem album, cemented by a teary farewell performance at Madison Square Garden. Their choice to reunite seven years later, then, proved controversial; some considered it a betrayal, that it undermined the sincerity of the MSG performance which marked the end of an era for so many. But to anyone paying attention, Murphy’s inability to stay away from the band, and his craving to return ‘home’, is about as Murphy as it gets. The product of the reunion is amongst the best albums ever produced: 2017’s american dream.

american dream is morbid, vulnerable, expositional. It is LCD Soundsystem’s Blackstar, a fitting symmetry given that Bowie himself convinced an anxious Murphy to pull the trigger and reunite the band. Whilst sonically distinct, american dream is Murphy’s soberest and bleakest effort. Even his musings on the industry in Tonite are laced with the message that life is better finite. But it’s the tracks how do you sleep? andamerican dreamthat define Murphy’s final transformation into a weathered record-store veteran with nothing to hide. The former is a ruthless nine-minute massacre of Murphy’s former friend and business partner Tim Goldsworthy, whom he sued for unjust enrichment. It’s the best diss track since No Vaseline, with vicious, unambiguous jabs like ‘you warned me about the cocaine, then dove straight in’, and ‘I must admit, I miss the laughing, but not so much you’. Underlying the track is a sinister wave of pulsing synths that builds towards the tsunami of Murphy’s haunting bellow: ‘how do you sleep?’

The song american dream, though, is LCD Soundsystem’s crowning achievement. It is the zenith of lyrical eloquence that dwarfs Murphy’s breakout persona, whose expressions were limited to electronica and elitism. Instead,american dream lays the struggle of alienated youth bare. It confronts, and obliterates, the mainstream romanticisation of youth with a brutally Smithsian depiction of life as a young sufferer, for whom meaning and joy give way to drugs and sex, aimlessness and isolation. On a personal level, it is the only song I have heard that truly expresses the anomie inherent in a severe mental illness. It is a masterpiece that demands your immediate attention.

Listening to LCD Soundsystem’s albums in chronological order is enough to realise Murphy’s incredible growth from self-effacing hipster icon to an eternally relevant indie-rock legend with something to say. A journey through their discography is littered with a lifetime’s wisdom, displaying such powerful evolution throughout that you will emerge a more insightful person. Good artists transform over time; legendary artists transform the listener.