LCD Soundsystem's 'American Dream' Live: James Murphy Assures You It Is OK Not to Be There
A decade and a half on, James Murphy hasn’t lost his edge one bit, just like the greats never do. However, not only is he more mature and less concerned with all of us -- he is also successful in his own eyes, on his own terms
I have never met, or seen, James Murphy, in a professional capacity. That is important, actually. The one time I did get to meet him was as a passerby after a festival show in 2010. He had just finished with another spectacular live performance and was wandering the open backstage area, looking bored. Accidentally I was alone, too, at the moment, so I decided to chat him up as a fan, not a reporter. What was supposed to be a brief exchange of platitudes and courteous, generic observations, turned into a beautiful, candid 30-minute conversation. Over two cans of whatever juice they were handing out backstage, we talked a little bit about music and his work ethic, and at length about American society, his connection to New York and the difference between “his” city and “mine” (at the time it was Los Angeles). We laughed about the East Coast -- West Coast “rivalry”, and marveled at human gullibility, the desire to belong to a particular scene and the way a localized microcosm can shape one’s attitudes and behaviors. Even today, I vividly remember Mr. James Murphy as a singularly eloquent and open, warm and kind person. For an eager 22-year-old looking to belong, a heart-to-heart discussion with this man was an invaluable human experience.
The reason this vignette is pertinent is this -- many of Murphy's acquaintances and one-time collaborators from the Big Apple have a tendency to describe him as “difficult”, a “control freak”; even words such as “flippant” and “rude” surface every so often. Even journalists sometimes deem him a “piece of work”. While the man himself confessed to those claims being at least partially true, I believe another truth has always been present with him, a truth finally unveiled and fully realized on American Dream.
In short, I believe James Murphy has privately always been a kind, gentle man of many words and creative advice -- it’s just that his youth was spent on trying to be a part of a very specific scene, that of the New York “music professionals”; this meant one had to carry themselves with a certain demeanor around the clock. This “demeanor”, a professional persona if you will, had to be created to keep a man sane. It was a demeanor imposed by a fast-paced, ruthless, para intellectual environment, enforced literally at every corner. And once it had been created, as a result of futile decade-long attempts at “fitting in”, at recognition and fame, it was a persona of exasperation, irony, and despondency, gloriously introduced through his lyrics and delivery on “Losing My Edge”, initially released in 2002.
Certainly, this was something that drove us toward LCD Soundsystem for the six years Murphy was active as a reluctant voice of both a hipster and anti-hipster generation. Between 2005 and 2010, their three glorious albums served as a coherent whole, bitter but endearing studies (and quips) about everything going, everywhere, all the time. However auto-ironically, Murphy’s focus was on “being there”, whether to observe or participate. His band combined a punk attitude with indie rock delivery and electro-disco coating. Everything about it was wry, perfectionist to a fault, and cool.
And then it all became too much, especially for a man so determined to steer clear of superstardom. After the faux “final show” at the Madison Square Garden in 2011, Murphy seemingly fell off the face of the Earth. In fact, he was busier than ever, creating the life he wanted for himself, a life away from the mayhem of the New York scene. He got married, became a father, produced Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”, forged a deeply caring friendship with the late David Bowie, developed his own line of coffee, and even opened a wine bar in Williamsburg. Apparently, he also became an eBay aficionado, but whether this passion predates the band’s hiatus is unknown. He is 47 now, after all.
And the fact that he is now 47, maturing, getting older and, oddly, at ease with life, is evident in every haunting beat of the marvelous American Dream. The band’s first Billboard No. 1 album is, according to Murphy, “the best he’s ever felt about an LCD Soundsystem LP”. Murphy’s and the band's great comeback is a demonstration of strength, another sonically impeccable album, but this time with considerably more far-reaching lyrics. Unironic and unpretentious, with American Dream, Murphy finally vanquished any semblance of a persona. No more scenes, no more juvenile ambitions.
This newfound ease is evident throughout the band’s brilliant performance in Copenhagen’s legendary VEGA Music House. Built in 1956 and designed by the famous Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen, VEGA is a 1,500-capacity gem of a venue, a truly intimate space where hardcore fans can lean against the stage and watch the performers from five feet away, while the more casual listeners can sit/stand comfortably across the large, U-shaped balcony. Murphy certainly knew about the venue’s allure -- in the words of VEGA’s Head of Communications, Ditte Kramer, he asked to kick off the brief European tour there, and scheduled a three-night stint to promote the new album. As you imagine, the tickets sold out fast.
Once you’re inside the venue, it’s clear he was right to choose it. Due to logistical issues, I was unable to attend the first two shows (the second show saw the live premiere of “Change Yr Mind” and “Emotional Haircut”), but for the third one, I got to be in the front row, literally leaning against the stage. The party kicked off with an excellent DJ set by the Irish electronic musician Marcus Lambkin, aka Shit Robot, Murphy’s long-term friend and a producer under his label, DFA. Lambkin engaged the capacity crowd for a full hour, though one attendee turned heads more than the rest. It was a beautiful, wide-eyed two-year-old who wiggled her toy monkey to the beats and exuberantly mimicked the synthesizer melodies.
It was Murphy’s daughter.
And Murphy himself, now a family man, took to the stage with a big smile, relaxed, in a plain white t-shirt and some atrocious hipster striped sneakers a lit student at NYU might describe as “cool”. Well, guess not everything can change at once. The eight-strong crew kicks things off with “Yr City’s a Sucker”, the B-side to the famous “Movement”. The crowd didn’t necessarily recognize the song, but the percussions were there, the ferocious tempo as well, and people immediately started moving to the beat. On the other hand, “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” was an immediate killer, with a slightly edgier and guitar-driven sound than before. This time around, Murphy was just having fun singing the obscene, bragging lyrics about being, you know it, “cool”. There were hints of self-parody not present before. Another thing was new -- for the first 20 minutes that his child was watching the show, Murphy kept glancing up to the balcony every 30 seconds or so. Yes, he was singing, and well. Of course, the band was also immaculate, but it has become evident that now the shows are exactly that -- work, displays of professional effort. Other things are now just as, if not more, important. Exactly the way it should be.
After the potent “I Can Change”, “Get Innocuous!” brought a real, aggressive electronic vibe. Nancy Whang got the overjoyed crowd to dance, while Murphy kept glancing toward the balcony, smiling and waving at his little girl. At one point he found himself caught off guard, with some 1,500 faces staring at him while he was making faces at the little girl. “This is her favorite song,” he smiled, and “Call the Police” began. It is but one of the many non-refrain songs off the new record, featuring a storytelling fluidity which keeps building up but never achieves a release through a chorus. Quite a few people sang, and it was evident the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
“You Wanted a Hit” became a crowd favorite the moment the visceral synths started about five minutes in, but it was “Tribulations” that was the high point, midway through. Unflinching and unapologetic, Murphy gave it his all, and his wounded “aaaaaaah, aaaaaah” at the beginning of the chorus, was screamed in unison across the hall. Perhaps it wasn’t the most physically responsible idea to shove in “Movement” straight after -- by the time the punk anthem was done, both Murphy and I were literally dripping sweat on the tiny stage. With his gout problem, I don’t even know how he manages.
Luckily, “Yeah”, was somewhat less kinetically demanding, and the crowd bore witness to a smiling, relaxed Murphy, who chatted with his band members even during songs. “Someone Great”, an old favorite, pulled no punches, and some visibly inebriated young Danes stole the show with semi-articulate lamenting over their partners leaving them. The beautifully rendered “American Dream” was the much-needed ballad du jour, but without a doubt “Tonite” was the most relatable, perhaps the most reassuring, of the three singles. “So you will be badgered and taunted until death, you're missing a party that you'll never get over, you hate the idea that you're wasting your youth, that you stood in the background, oh, until you got older; but that's all lies, that's all lies,” conceded Murphy. It was the assurance and comfort we have been seeking all these years, to know that the things we thought mattered when we were young don’t really matter in the grand scheme of life. Most likely it was the comfort Murphy was trying to achieve himself.
“Home”, the playful final song of the first part of the show, saw Murphy laugh some more, taunting drummer Pat Mahoney by interfering with his rhythm. In all those angsty years of the ‘00s, I have never seen Murphy smile and laugh this much, acting like a playful child onstage. The encore or, in Murphy’s words, “the songs the band will play after everyone gets to pee,” saw an impeccable rendition of “Change Yr Mind”, a new song reminiscent of both latter-day Bowie and Brian Eno, perhaps even Bauhaus and the Cure. In fact, American Dream is even more of an homage to Murphy’s heroes, Talking Heads, Bowie, and Eno, than any other of his records. Arguably he was and still is, the only mainstream musician to have ever managed to build on and expand the trademark sounds of his idols, making possibly even better tunes in the process.
I saw the setlist beneath Mahoney’s feet feature “Emo Hair”, an appropriately abbreviated name for “Emotional Haircut”. However, the song was cut because the curfew was approaching. By the time “Dance Yrself Clean” and “All My Friends” brought the grand finale to a full two hours of sheer musical genius, the crowd was already emotionally and physically drained; sweat and tears were seen everywhere. Murphy was jovial all the way through, delivering the lyrics not as a dreadful concern over the inadequacies of everyday existence, but rather as anecdotes, funny stories of the times gone by. At the very end, a topless Danish man screams at Murphy from the front row, trying to reach out and touch him from several feet away. Murphy looks at him and says, “It’s OK; trust me, it’s going to be OK.”
LCD Soundsystem’s complex, immaculately produced music, is same as it ever was, which is sublime; this hasn’t changed one bit with American Dream. On the other hand, a sea change is now obvious at every turn with the maestro himself, the kind, gentle man who had too long been driven by the idea of “cool” and aspirations of becoming the epitome of this elusive trait. The man overwhelmed and overburdened by a city in which success is long measured by quantity, not quality. A man preoccupied with his perceived peers’ unrealistic expectations, his appearance, posture, eloquence, and yes, age. Also, a man propelled to superstardom by finding solace in drawing our attention to the trivial, irksome people and occurrences most of us were too busy to notice due to focus on an effort to be cool.
The reality is, James Murphy has always been cool, despite or, precisely because of, his best effort. Whether the former or the latter is true has become unimportant in his spellbinding artistic process. His subdued ferocity, the observations of the indignant wallflower who knew he deserved better, the judgmental great American lyrics, the perseverance of life’s omnipresent uncertainty, through his lens all of this has always been cool. Pretentious only insofar that he gave himself the liberty to call things like he saw them, he never advised on how to live our lives, but he shifted our attention and thoughts in the right direction. For all this, for years, he really was cool, the coolest.
And today, a decade and a half on, James Murphy hasn’t lost his edge one bit, just like the greats never do. However, not only is he more mature and less concerned with all of us -- he is also successful in his own eyes, on his own terms; as a loving father, a revered producer, fuck, a wine bar owner. Finally, he is free from the idea of being cool. By ditching the posing in his lyrics for the grounded, the familiar, be it the passage of time, a dissolution of friendship, death, or the “Fear of Missing Out”, on American Dream he has finally allowed his true self to step up and actually lead by example. And what an example it is. Tonite, Murphy may no longer be cool, but make no mistake, for he has finally achieved his true lifelong goal -- tonight, and for generations to come, he is relevant.