If Paul McCartney had retired to run a wine bar for the bulk of his 40s instead of recording “Spies Like Us” and Press to Play, would you really feel cheated?
Yes, I realize there’s some latent bitterness out there about James Murphy ostentatiously throwing a huge Last Waltz of a breakup concert at Madison Square Garden for LCD Soundsystem in 2010, announcing his intent to instead indulge his bougie oenophilia, then popping back up a half dozen years later like a sitcom character returning to the original cast after a failed spinoff.
But if, like Murphy (and me), you came of age at a time ‘60s rockers were refusing to act theirs, you’d tread cautiously as you entered your Wilbury years too. That hiatus may have spared us Murphy’s Dylan & the Dead, his She’s the Boss, maybe even his Under the Raging Moon. Ain’t nobody borrowing nostalgia for those unremembered ‘80s.
Not that Murphy, now 47, has ever shied from acknowledging the awkwardness of aging. He famously began his career as frontman in 2002 by wallowing in his own obsolescence with “Losing My Edge,” the monologue of a wizened 32-year-old who’d Gumped his way through the most definitively hip moments in music history only to find himself outpaced by a younger generation. The weary tone of that debut would forever tint LCD’s output. For instance, I’ve always heard in the loved and loathed “Drunk Girls” (which swipes the tune of “White Light White Heat” but replaces heroin and speed with red wine and cosmos as its drugs of choice) a middle-aged man’s exasperation at the indignity of being forced to cram into a packed club night after night just so he can get laid.
And as expected, “old” and “older” are words that frequently percolate up from the diffuse literate burble that flows through American Dream, LCD Soundsystem’s lyrically drab, musically vibrant comeback record. “I’m just to [sic] old for it now,” Murphy sulks on “Change Yr Mind” as guitar abrasions splatter against the beat then wander atonally off to the corners. Ever the performative masochist, Murphy tosses out the line “I got nothing left to say” for his critics’ benefit on that same song, and that’s not the only time he leads with his chin here.
The first track on American Dream, “Oh Baby” is so pointlessly gorgeous it seems custom-made to either induce swoons or arouse suspicions. In the past, Murphy has characteristically maintained a cool, observational distance from his deepest emotions, even addressing himself as “you,” but he plays this chorus of “Please baby please” appallingly straight while a carillon of electronic effects lights up behind him. The track crests with a studied, inexorable accretion of synth sounds and swells, like a simulation of “With or Without You” that, you know, loses the Edge.
Murphy wants to make something real. He wants to make a U2 record.
Yes, you may have already read that elsewhere. But that still leaves you unprepared for the familiarly martial Larry Mullen Jr. Jr. tom drum pattern that powers “How Do You Sleep,” a nine-minute War-torn downer that the internet believes to be a poison pen letter to Tim Goldsworthy, Murphy’s former partner at the scene-making dance/rock label DFA Records. (The hint’s in the title, lifted from an acid broadside that John Lennon directed at McCartney after the Beatles breakup.) “There’s more for you” Murphy drones 20 times, as though seeking to hypnotize his foe into feeling guilty.
A good DJ instinctively reads the mood of a room, and if you’ve ever heard one of his sets you know Murphy’s a great one. The coked up early aughts called for the sardonic anxiety of “Losing My Edge,” and the defiantly anti-lyrical single-word chant “Yeah.” LCD Soundsystem recognized that the rock canon had been redefined to place Kraftwerk and Eno at its center, while Sound of Silver embraced the new earnestness that had set in by 2007. And from its title on down, This Is Happening was about regaining your bearings in the social-media accelerated world of a New York that kept gentrifying in the face of economic collapse. Now, in an age of political crisis that many of us have internalized as a psychological one while enduring smug shouts, virtual and actual, from all corners, Murphy embraces a muzzy uncertainty as a form of emotional honesty.
This hits home at the profound triptych of tracks at the center of the album. “Tonite” insists that your youth isn’t wasted just because you don’t live with the immediacy of a pop hit. “Call the Police” is a baffled protest song for everyone who woke up dazed on November 9 only to find that the blowhards who’d been so wrong about everything a day earlier were no less certain about their latest predictions. And the title song careens through a series of perspectives on mortality like a dizzying tracking shot through our shared late-night anxieties.
As a singer-songwriter, Murphy’s traded in his one-liners to become a kind of a roots musician, with new-wave, post-punk, and electronic dance music in the place of country and blues. That isn’t always a good thing. It works on “Other Voices,” which focuses on the frustrations of aging without maturing, as Murphy laments “Time isn’t over, times aren’t better” and tells himself “You’re still a pushover for passionate people.” But “I Used To” is a doomy drag. “I used to dance alone of my own volition/ I used to wait for the rock transmissions,” Murphy intones, basking in the mundanity of his moodiness like a middle-aged Ian Curtis who got a desk job instead of offing himself.
In contrast to the unsteady lyrics, the music moves forward with an unshaken assurance. The minimalist synth groove of “Oh Baby,” the gurgling Talking Heads funk of “Other Voices,” the booming backbeat of “I Used To,” the teletype synth blurts of “Tonite” – each song here establishes itself rhythmically within its first few seconds, generating an “oh this one” excitement, then accrues layers of texture and color from there.
But ultimately, American Dream suffers from a suspicious lack of bad taste. What’s always made Murphy’s moments of sentimentality effective was the scenester in-jokes he balanced them off with, and not even the tossed off punker “Emotional Haircut” offers Murphy’s old-time yucks. He’s bummed, like you and me, and old enough to know that artfully deployed irony is no match for an incipient neo-fascist kleptocracy. But now that he's got us to collectively 'fess up to our collective confusion, it's time to get our shit together. We can still dance while we're doing that.