Lose yourself to dance with LCD Soundsystem
The band that makes dance music for grown ups is back in a controversial re-incarnation
Approximately 3 minutes and 40 seconds into How Do You Sleep?, a song on LCD Soundsystem’s just-released new album, American Dream, you want to get up and start dancing. Not at the beginning but just around a third into the song. It opens innocuously with drums filling the sonic stage followed by trippy vocals: Standing on the shore, facing East/I can’t feel you/Standing on the shore, facing East/Your impermanence/You’re taking water/Listing, lazily out of view... But just as you’re settling into following those whimsical lyrics, something happens, the music becomes up-tempo and suddenly it’s a full-blown party. Before you know it, you’re up on your feet. That is how the purveyors of New York City’s finest dance music like to do things and that is what makes their fans not only loyal to the band but also fiercely possessive.
The first song by LCD Soundsystem that I heard was the mischievous yet affectionate dig that they took at Daft Punk, the storied and enigmatic French electronic music duo. The track was Daft Punk Is Playing At My House and it was the first track on their self-titled debut album. It was 2005 and some would say with that album, James Murphy, the band’s talented leader, singer, and composer, was bringing the sounds of New York’s underground dance and electronic scene over ground to a larger audience. Murphy, who had worked in a couple of bands and was a producer with his own label, had been releasing singles before that album came out, making a name with one of them, Losing My Edge, which also found a place on the debut album.
LCD Soundsystem broke new ground in the electronic scene of the day. They blended their post-punk credo of experimenting with non-minimalistic multi-genres, including dance, house, disco, jazz, and Afro-beat, with lyrics that were deep and meaningful. It was music that, if you wanted, you could dance to at an all-night party or you could just sit back and listen to words and all. The eponymous debut album was an instant hit: critical acclaim poured in; a couple of Grammy nominations happened; and it climbed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. LCD Soundsystem took the dance music scene by storm and soon, their fans numbered legions and their shows filled huge venues.
By 2010, the band had three studio albums (besides one called 45:33, which was actually a commissioned piece for Nike composed ostensibly to accompany running). Their second album, Sound Of Silver (2007), however, was the most impactful: electronic music that was steeped in emotion, with songs dealing with mid-life crisis; the travails of an ageing hipster (Murphy had turned 36); and even despair. It also has my favourite track: New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, which can become an earworm on first listen. Their third, This Is Happening, came out in 2010 and wasn’t radically different from earlier ones—trumping Sound Of Silver would in any case be a tough task—but it was amply clear that this was a band that had perfected its unique blend of electronic dance/house music that was steeped in thought. LCD Soundsystem’s music was easily the best and most impeccably produced electronic music for grown-ups.
And then, poof, it was all over. Or so they said. Murphy announced that the band was done and dusted; that it would break up; and that they would do a last show in New York’s Madison Square Garden, which happened on 2 April, 2011. Fans were devastated, the band’s back catalogue sales peaked, requiems were written, and the last show’s audio and video recordings were marketed with dollops of hype. Murphy, who was actually the band’s main (and, seemingly, sole) creative force, ventured into other things: recording with other bands, including a guest appearance on David Bowie’s Blackstar; producing for yet others; and composing music for films, notably Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. In 2015, he turned 45 and he and his wife opened Four Horsemen, a cosy, no-frills restaurant serving wine and small plates in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which you could walk into and perchance bump into him at the bar. A perfect segue into middle age? Only it was not.
The whispers began sometime during 2015 and peaked with the release of a surprise single, Christmas Will Break Your Heart, in December of that year. The band then played a couple of festivals (Coachella and Lollapalooza) and headlined many more gigs after that. Curiously, all of this led to a blowback from their ardent fans, many of whom felt indignant about being misled by the “disbandment" after This Is Happening. Amidst such a controversy, this month (on 1 September), LCD Soundsystem released American Dream, their fourth studio album and, possibly, their best till date. With it, the stars of dance-punk have shown their brilliance has not dimmed in spite of the hiatus. Appropriately, American Dream is an angry album, reflecting some of the prevailing mood in the US. There’s the bleakness of confronting mortality; sex; drugs; and, well, mere existence. Yet, there’s also the meticulously crafted music: the precision of metronomic beats; dub; Afro-beat; and old-timey retro disco. The problem often with electronic dance music—and I’m talking about the fare dished out by tattooed bedroom composers, sampling and mixing stuff on their laptops—is that tracks tend to sound similar. No such problem with LCD Soundsystem. Their compositions are never the same: each song is singular. And then there are Murphy’s lyrics: witty, ironic, and lacerating. That’s why they’re the best dance-punk band ever. And that’s why indignant, sulking fans will forgive them. I think they’ve done that already.
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. Daft Punk Is Playing At My House by LCD Soundsystem from LCD Soundsystem
2. How Do You Sleep? by LCD Soundsystem from American Dream
3. Spent The Day In Bed by Morrissey from Low In High School
4. See What Love Did To Me by Yusuf/Cat Stevens from The Laughing Apple
5. Hitchhiker by Neil Young from Hitchhiker
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.