Thursday, September 7, 2017

album review: 'american dream' by lcd soundsystem

Okay, I've talked a little bit in the past about artists that even fellow critics acknowledge are 'critic-bait' - acts that pay tribute to the past while expanding their sound into interesting genre fusions that are experimental but not incredibly challenging, often overloaded with easter egg references and frontmen who are as much music nerds as we are, you get the idea. Now I'm not immune to this - hell, one of the reasons why I'm such a big fan of Eric Church's Mr. Misunderstood is that he transplanted that vinyl-collecting, Wilco-referencing archetype into country music, and it was a phenomenal fit for me - but I think one of the reasons where I'm more tolerant of that is because in country Church's subject matter did make him feel like a genuine outcast and the self-mythologizing rang through stronger, whereas in indie rock it's a lot more common and...

Okay, there's no way around this, I've been bracing myself for this LCD Soundsystem review ever since they were first referenced on Season 2 of You're The Worst. The project of frontman James Murphy that won a tidal wave of critical acclaim in the 2000s for fusing ridiculously tight electronic grooves with guitar-driven indie rock and lyrics intensely knowledgeable of music history and yet focused most on the inevitable wistful melancholy of growing older, it was laser-focused to hit a certain demographic of music critic... and yet I'll be the first to say I've always held them a bit at arm's length. Don't get me wrong, the grooves are pretty damn great, even if I find some of the melodies lacking and James Murphy's navel gazing pretty pretentious - I know, coming from me, I get it - and frequently right on the edge of insufferable. But considering the group effectively broke apart after This Is Happening in 2010, I figured I'd never need to discuss them further... until the retirement myth ended, they got back together for an encore record called American Dream this year that as everyone could have predicted has won buckets of critical acclaim... although among critics I like and respect a little less than you'd otherwise expect. Okay, my interest was piqued, what did I find on American Dream?

Honestly, I find it hard to not add this record to the list of muted and underwhelming comebacks that have cropped up over the past couple of years, projects that don't take the chances they seem to on the surface, won a ton of praise from the diehard fanbase, and yet more critical listeners have come down all the harder. If anything, my emotional response to this feels a lot like when I covered At The Drive-In's return earlier this year - coming from a critically acclaimed back catalog to which I liked but definitely didn't love, playing in many of the same thematic arcs that informed their previous records with variations in sound that don't always flatter them, and yet overall I'm not particularly passionate one way or the other because I was never a huge LCD Soundsystem fan in the first place. I will say it's not better than Sound Of Silver or This Is Happening, but I don't think this is bad, just mildly underwhelming and occasionally exasperating.

And really, those two descriptors can be applied easily to the production and writing, in that order, so let's start with the sound and compositions here. Now again, I like most of the underlying foundation of an LCD Soundsystem record - James Murphy has an uncanny knack in fusing drum machines and synth grooves with jittery guitar, spiky bass grooves, and unconventional percussion, and to me the band has always been at their best either going for big anthemic indie rock or doubling down on the nervy, post-punk-and-Talking-Heads-esque grooves that ratchet up that anxious tension. And while we do get some of that here - the guitar skitters and howls across 'change yr mind' that crank up the darker crescendo, the unsteady bite behind 'emotional haircut', the quick tempo of the groove behind 'call the police', the keening wails behind the firmer bass of 'other voices' - hell, the guitar solos or even just interjections on 'oh baby', 'i used to' and 'tonite' either elevate or outright save those songs - I can't help but feel that as a whole across the songs there's a lot less nervous energy and tension in the same way, not helped by compositions that lean heavily on spacious buzzy synths and ambient drones and nearly always run longer than they should. Now granted, that's been an issue with LCD Soundsystem for years now, and I'm not saying that all of these songs needed that bass presence - 'how do you sleep?' gets a lot of mileage out of the dark skitter of kickdrums - but on the flip side you have the title track with its languid oily swells and soft tapping percussion, or the ugly tones that screech across 'i used to', and I'm just not a huge fan of the tones, as none of them complement the tighter electronics that lie along the core of their best tracks. And yes, I get the ambient homage that 'black screen' is trying to be - more on this in a bit - but it's also twelve minutes and on a ten song record over an hour, there's just not enough her to justify that length, even despite the admittedly pretty keys on the outro.

And here's the thing: it's not like James Murphy doesn't get the styles of music he creates, cribbed from the Talking Heads and post-punk and no wave in one moment and Ultravox and New Order the next - and that actually doesn't bother me, for the record, as Murphy's never given a damn about sounding 'modern'. But at the same time, when he's working his David Byrne impression or trying a falsetto that doesn't always flatter him, it can make for frustrating moments, especially when on some songs like 'how do you sleep?' and the title track he places his vocal track deeper into the mix, which doesn't exactly conceal how underwritten a few of these songs can feel, especially the former. So we might as well get to the writing... and here's the thing: it's an LCD Soundsystem record, and if you're expecting the overarching struggle between the fearful necessity of age and the anxious exuberance of youth, you're going to get it, just colored a little more with the time spent away from the spotlight and the ghost of David Bowie, to whom Murphy had gotten close before his passing last year. It's clear that grief and ending haunts this record, as beyond the closing song 'black screen' which serves as a pretty solid tribute, his words of pushing Murphy into uncomfortable places resonate deeply, mostly because it comes with the realization that despite his inhuman skill, Bowie faced that same uncertainty too.

So you have to wonder why the hell this record spends so much time in its comfort zone, then - a comfortable cushion of self-aware detachment that flagellates itself out of habit and provide easy justification to take aim at the world and music scene around him. Don't get me wrong, the reason why 'change yr mind' works is highlighting the stagnation of normalcy that can be broken free by reforming the band, but when Murphy follows it with a nine minute screed against a former founder of his label Death From Above, it's a detour that can feel thematically flimsy, despite being a solid enough song. Where this record gets more obnoxious in my books are the next three songs - and realize some of this is a generational thing, specifically my lack of patience for a certain brand of cynical Gen X detachment. Yes, I get the message of 'tonite', castigating the constant focus on the 'now' in modern pop culture which ignores the passage of time, employs dangerous tactics of social alienation in its web of mirrors, and how easily it can be exploited by corporate brands, but an overarching answer of 'it's all lies' is philosophically lazy and remarkably hypocritical - especially on the corporate front, I didn't who commissioned 45:33. 'call the police' might milk the Bowie and U2 comparisons in its compositions, but has none of their earnestness as it steps out of the culture war to scoff at both the frightened and frightening old men in power and the kids revolting, who are described in turn as triggered, clueless, easily manipulated kids who have no idea of the consequences of the systems they're breaking - which may be true but it ignores that Murphy has the comfort to make that observation because he benefits from those underlying systems. And then you have the title track, which takes his depressed, disillusioned ex-punk from a drug comedown and a one night stand, putting on a smile and dancing hard to mask any real emotion because, to quote, 'you just suck at self preservation / versus someone else's pain' - because acknowledging it's not all about you and showing empathy is so damn hard, right? It reminds me a lot of the title track of Frank Turner's Love, Ire & Song, but whereas that track channeled righteous disillusionment towards fleeting hope, Murphy wallows in musings about an American dream that was always a societal construct mostly built to serve him! 

And that hits a major missed opportunity on this project - this album is at its best when embracing that uneasy discomfort that comes with taking a real chance in a fleeting world like on 'change yr mind', or the 'bare all' moment that comes with 'emotional haircut', and it's a damn shame the album didn't take that additional step to push that both sonically and thematically beyond Murphy's immediate headspace. Yes, LCD Soundsystem has never really done that, and Murphy has never seemed entirely clued in about how much his music has resonated with its laser-targeted demographic, but if you're titling your record American Dream and going big for your comeback, you've got no reason not to go for broke. But of course Murphy has written himself a justification for not doing so and just being comfortable in his space, and maybe his own haggardness would have prevented that step, but it certainly undercuts his societal commentary, and preemptive justifications can feel all the more thin. But really, at the end of the day none of this is remotely surprising: LCD Soundsystem built their career on overthinking their career and their position in music, and if you've been a fan of that, provided you're able to get on board with a few less grooves and a few more retro synth-heavy soundscapes, you'll like this. For me, this is a 6/10 and maybe a recommendation, but the songs are tighter on Sound Of Silver and This Is Happening, and there's a part of me that feels that LCD Soundsystem's legacy would ring out more clearly if it ended there - just saying.

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