Counterbalance No. 141: LCD Soundsystem - 'Sound of Silver'
One hundred forty-first most acclaimed album of all time, talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you remember the the feelings of a real life emotional teenager. Then you think again. LCD Soundsystem is this week's Counterbalance.
Klinger: You and I have been on this crazy mission to discuss the most acclaimed albums of all time, as enumerated by the Acclaimed Music website (readers, head over there to check out his methodologies and algorithms and whatnot), for three years, and in that time we've only covered a handful albums released since the turn of the millennium. Some might argue that's not enough. Others might argue that's too many. I just shrug my shoulders and say that math is complicated. In most cases, I do suggest that many of these albums will lose their cachet over time, and they'll likely slip down the charts as new albums are released and old albums are reassessed.
There's something about LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver, the latest post-millennial record to turn up on the Great List, that leaves me with the impression that it will somehow remain canonical, even if it did drop a bit with the Great List's most recent update (readers, also check out the Excel spreadsheet over there to see where things are moving around. It's really quite fascinating.) I'm not sure if I can quite yet put my finger on where I'm getting that impression, though. I'm leaning toward its overarching sense of its place in the larger rock tradition, but I'm not 100% sure. Mendelsohn, you've spent a good bit more time in this milieu than I have—maybe you can help?
Mendelsohn: While I have nothing but love for this record, I'm not sure I'm cool enough, nor do I possess the archaic knowledge needed to speak to the massive, disparate influences that James Murphy, the man behind the band, put into making Sound of Silver. I think you hit it on the head, Klinger, with your assessment of LCD Soundsystem's "overarching sense of its place in the larger rock tradition", specifically how the band fits into that tradition itself—most notably the tradition-rich New York club scene. LCD Soundsystem is just the latest NYC-based band to make good on its hype, following in the footsteps of the Velvet Underground, Television, Talking Heads, New York Dolls, and Blondie. But that's only half the story. We have the rock, yes, but now we need the beat. And that's where European electronic touchstones like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Manuel Gottsching come into play.
Murphy took the coolest music scene around, combined it with some obscure but well-regarded music from across the pond, added a danceable, unrelenting beat and in the process rolled out a record that completely blurred the lines between rock and electronic music.
Klinger: But I still think there's something that sets this apart from a lot of the dance music that I'm aware of, at least (and how exactly do I categorize this stuff anyway? It seems like there's like an unwieldy number of genres and subgenres involved in this style of music—part of the reason it's so daunting.). And you're right, Murphy does employ a number of distinct voices throughout the proceedings, switching from a Bowie-esque croon in "Us v Them" to a more surprising bit of Jonathan Richman whimsy in "North American Scum". The main thing I keep coming back around to is Murphy's ability to craft lyrics that go well beyond what one (or what I, at least) would expect on a dance floor.
I might have expected the humor in a song like "North American Scum", but I was really taken aback by how moved I was during songs like "Someone Great" and "All My Friends". When one typically thinks of the New York rock scene, there's a tendency to think in terms of ironic detachment. Maybe I was bracing myself for that and I was caught off-guard by an overarching feeling of melancholy, but it's proven to be a most welcome surprise.
Mendelsohn: I think what really separates LCD Soundsystem from other electronic bands is that attention to songwriting. Most electronic music starts with a beat and then the hook and other samples are inserted as needed. With Sound of Silver, I get the impression that the songwriting followed a more organic approach before the electronic elements were inserted into the songs. This also applies to the approach taken in regard to lyrics. There is real substance to these songs—a post ironic detachment and a self-effacing awareness and humor that went completely against the grain in a town where irony seems to rule.
I'm also impressed with the ease that Murphy can transition from extended electronic noodling in the vein of Manuel Gottsching with "Sound of Silver" to a piano-driven, heartbreaking love letter to his home town in "New York I Love You". On paper, that doesn't make any sense. They are two completely different things, yet on this record, it sounds perfectly natural. And so it goes with most of the record—there is a beautiful give and take between two sides of the music spectrum, married perfectly with a keen sense of time and place and how those elements can interact with each other. It might also be telling that the final word on this album goes to the guitar.
I'm kind of surprised by your reaction to this album. It can get awfully repetitive at times. In the past you have expressed displeasure with music that takes its time to get where it's going so I figured this record might elicit the same reaction. Is it just the surprise of emotion that you enjoy or is there something more that speaks to you?
Klinger: Yeah, I think that's really what's going on here. I hadn't really even noticed the repetitiveness because it does all sound very, as you put it, organic. And Murphy is clearly a savvy enough songwriter to understand that even electronic music needs to have a beating heart in it somewhere. I suspect, too, that my appreciation for this may have something to do with the fact that Murphy is from my generation -- he was 37 when this album was released -- so maybe I relate to his angsty melancholia a little bit better, since I also feel like it's coming from a place of perspective. It's right there in the title track: “Makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again." For those of us who have come to realize that we wouldn't go back to our teenage years for anything, that sounds about right.
At any rate, that may also be something that critics are responding to, when you consider that there hasn't been a ton of electronic music thus far on the Great List. We've mentioned in the past that critics, beneath their Cheeto-dusted Bad Brains t-shirts, have a decided penchant for sweet, sweet sadness. That may also stem from the idea that they listen to music differently than regular people do. They more likely to listen to Sound of Silver in their home office or living room than on a dance floor. It's not surprising, then, that they respond to James Murphy's full range of emotion.
Mendelsohn: Sometimes I really hate agreeing with you. Here I thought we were going to have a real fight over this record. I had prepared a long speech setting up Murphy as some-sort Hipster Jesus -- flipping over turntable and feeding the masses with intellectualism through dance beats. What a bummer.
The truth is, I had never thought about this record that all hard. My brain tends to shut down a little bit when there is a four-on-the-floor beat and I'm liable to gloss over the details. Taking it apart like we have, I'm starting to see why you think this record might be around for the long haul. My one concern remains the "electronic music" tag attached to this record. It might be unfounded fear as the younger generations, who are much more versed in the myriad of electronic genres, move into the critical establishment, but that is always a stigma that electronic music will always have to deal with -- the idea that it should be relegated to the dance floor. Hopefully this record and the few others on the Great List will help electronic music shed that stigma for good.