Pay Some Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
I have a big crush on James Murphy, but all music critics do. He’s like the much cooler version of us. He is the big white music nerd who actually went on to do something about it by co-founding DFA Records and producing the coolest music in the world: post-punk post-funk punk-funk, new wave that also sounds like no wave, tunes that make dancers confused as to whether they should pogo or do the pelvic thrust, music that incorporates all other musics. His one-man studio band, LCD Soundsystem, is one of the DFA artists that has gotten most of the acclaim, for classic singles like 2002’s “Losing My Edge” and last year’s “Yeah (Crass Version)”. So LCD has had mad buzz for three years without actually releasing an album.
Which means, of course, that the knives were out for this record among the scenesters. Hell, Murphy beat them to it in “Losing My Edge”, which was a monologue about falling behind the musical times, especially ballsy considering no one had heard of him yet. So now it’s 2005; I know people who count themselves huge fans of DFA Records who have decided that this album is crap, that LCD is over, that everyone cool has already moved on, etc. It was inevitable; that’s the way of the world these days.
But once again Murphy has beaten them to it. In “Disco Infiltrator”, one of the best things on this album, he’s already answered their critique with one of his own patented self-critiques: “Bear in mind / We all fall behind from time to time.” Pre-emptive strikes are cool, especially when they’re sung using one of the vocal lines from Talking Head’s “The Great Curve” over a do-it-yourself synth beat and some serious “Soul Clapping” action. Music nerds who attack other music nerds are not cool. It’s like, y’know, fight the real enemy already. So score one for Murphy on that tip and let’s get away from the whole “is this the coolest music happening today” thing, because, seriously, WHO THE HELL CARES?
At first, it seems like the theme of this album is “I, James Murphy a.k.a. LCD Soundsystem, really really really love music.” Which would be a fine and noble theme, especially because it’s true. I’m pretty sure that no one loves music more than James Murphy. David Byrne keeps popping up (the “I Zimbra” melody on “On Repeat” is spot on), as does Byrne’s running-dog partner Brian Eno, who is probably talking to his lawyers right now about this record’s epic closing track “The Great Escape”. I hear B-52’s, I hear Prince, I hear the Beatles, I hear Chic, I hear dead people and living people and those in-between, like Sly Stone and Chris Stein.
Which could be annoying if it turned into a game of “spot the references”, but somehow it never does. The first song here is called “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”, but it doesn’t actually sound like Daft Punk; it’s more like the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” with a more-coherent 30-something American version of Mark E. Smith ranting over it, with guitar sounds that range from Adrian Belew to the Edge. And a dancefloor-friendly beat. And Mick Jagger faux-falsetto crooning. Oh, and with a cowbell break. The next tune, “Too Much Love”, actually sounds more like Daft Punk, with its robotic shuffle and whipcrack Berlinist percussion. Here, the M.E.S. vocal homage has been replaced by an intimate whisper, someone that might actually be James Murphy talking.
But who is James Murphy? That is the real central theme of this album. If you’re looking to the music to help you, you’re not going to get it—who is to be found in the three-minute robot-blast (with squealing guitar solo, thanks) of “Movement”? Well, no one, nothing to be found here, too much bombast and crashing and smashing unless you listen closely to the part about “A fat guy in a t-shirt doing all the singing”. Somewhere, buried underneath all the pounding sounds, is where Murphy is hiding.
This is not so unusual; we all know by now that studio wizards are nothing more than men and women behind fancy curtains. What is really freaking people out about this record are the moments when Murphy drops the curtain entirely. “Never as Tired as When I’m Waking Up” is a slow folk-rock song with affecting leaps into falsetto. What is it about? Well, there are a couple of ideas about that. It seems, on one level, to be a song about not wanting to have sex in the morning. On second listen, it turns out that it’s really a song about not wanting to have sex because it might lead to intimacy; this reading is underscored by Murphy pulling a double-switch with an anal-sex joke that he retracts before actually making it. After a few more times through, it appears that it might also be about being tired in general, tired of trying to outrun the hipness game; why does he always have to have the punky club bangers? Why can’t the great and mighty LCD Soundsystem do a ballad? Why can’t we all just get emo every once in a while?
That’s the appeal of this record, at least to me: there is something here. I don’t know what it is, just yet; maybe Murphy doesn’t, either. But beneath the lovely shiny disco thump of “Tribulations” there is naked emotion and heartbreak (“But you fight me off / Like a fighter does”). I hear lust and desire underneath the stop-start buzzcrunch of “Thrills”. And the basic krautrock one-two of “On Repeat” is actually the most open-faced sandwich of all, Murphy uncovering the best thing about music: “Your favorite band / Helps you sleep”. Why can’t he sleep? Why can’t I sleep? Why can’t any of us sleep, anymore? What’s wrong with us?
Anyway, okay, this is a great record. And if you’re not into a big-hearted great genius of a man trying to figure out who the hell he is, then you can just get it for the bonus disc which has all the older singles on it, because that stuff is ace too. But the real gems are to be found on the new stuff, because damn if there isn’t something there after all, damn if we aren’t all just on some level a fat guy in a t-shirt, trying to figure out what our own song is so we can sing it. It’s just that some of us are REALLY REALLY good at it.