This band has come farther over the course of a decade than many do in three times that. LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut was a geeky, self-conscious romp, a fun conglomeration of irresistible grooves and mostly improvised (and mostly silly) lyrics. Follow-up Sound Of Silver was so much harder to describe. “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” – certainly two of the best songs of 2007 – retooled the electronic groove into powerful, heartbreaking, and alarmingly fresh ballads. LCD Soundsystem confirmed they weren’t just wacky and derivative; they were also sincere and innovative.
Sound Of Silver was a great record; This Is Happening is phenomenal. Previously it had always been a bit of a head scratcher how pieces as unabashedly meaningless and fun as “Yeah” and “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” came out of the same mind as the aforementioned epics. This Is Happening bridges that gap. Stunningly mature but also a really good time, it is front man James Murphy’s best and most complex explanation of himself, told in terms of fascinating and longing.
“Dance Yrself Clean” is LCD Soundsystem’s best opener. The marriage of organic drumming and synthetic, fuzzy bass hits creates a unique mood, danceable but not robotic. Murphy plays the sociologist, observing social phenomena out of context (“Walking up to me expecting words/Happens all the time”) – but, in case you were worried he was getting too heady too quickly, there’s also a healthy dose of wordplay (“Present company excepted/Present company accept the worst”). Masters of the slow build, LCD Soundsystem tease you with flourishes – rattles and cowbell hits, an irresistible synth lick – until the inevitable and well-deserved eruption, when a series of snare hits usher in the dance party that is the final five minutes. Murphy’s wail has never sounded better.
The next two songs are just as danceable. Single “Drunk Girls” is the stylistic heir to the throne once occupied by “Daft Punk….” (and then “North American Scum”), but even its mostly insipid lyrics hint at the heartfelt love and longing that is this album’s thematic core: “Oh, oh, oh/I believe in waking up together.” “One Touch” finds Murphy singing in that put-on voice (cf. “Sound Of Silver,” the song) that tends to not be as compelling as his “normal” voice – but here it works brilliantly. Even at almost eight minutes long, this loop anthem does not overstay its welcome
“All I Want” and “I Can Change” are the album’s most brutally fragile pieces. In the former, Murphy croons softly over the lush instrumentation of piano, keyboard, and squalling electric guitar. (Also the best backing “la la la’s” of the year.) The chorus is sublime. “I Can Change” is quirkier and funkier, heavily reminiscent of Talking Heads. It finds Murphy vulnerable but still in control, unsure of his own worth, but willing to discuss it at length. After such emotionality, the next songs come across as severe. “You Wanted a Hit” builds lazily for three minutes and then shifts into abrasive (but still danceable) pop punk over which Murphy speak-sings in defense of his band’s unpoppiness, while “Pow Pow” rocks and rambles absurdly and delightfully, another eight minute song that is not a minute too long.
“Somebody’s Calling Me,” the album’s sole clunker, plods dully and flirts unsuccessfully with discord: on an album teeming with joy and earnestness, it lacks both. But closer “Home” makes up for it, not only because it’s one of the album’s best grooves, but also because Murphy’s vocal performance is his most stark and unaffected ever. It’s the sound of the man stepping out from behind the curtain, ready to take a bow.
The world of indie rock is dominated by the young and the old – the fresh talent and the established heroes. James Murphy doesn’t fit into either category: too old for the former; too young, with too few releases, for the latter. Though it may not feel like it when he’s spending months on tour, his age is a gift. This is a man with life experiences, things to say that are worth hearing. And he’s been around enough not only to know what’s been done before, but also to know how to incorporate it into his own work and still produce some of the most original music of the era. This is dance music that’s worth thinking about – or, more accurately, thoughtful music that’s worth dancing to.