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LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening Wyndham Wallace , April 26th, 2010 12:58

James Murphy knows it all. James Murphy also knows he knows it all. That's how he was able to craft the magnificent 'Losing My Edge', a song that takes a dig at musical snobs in an effort to alleviate his own guilt about – ta da! – being a musical snob. It was a song whose multi-layered irony and self-awareness propelled Murphy and his DFA collective into musical firmaments that his previous musical ventures in the indie world (as Pony, and then Speedking) had failed even to dent. It also set the template for the LCD Soundsystem ethos, a realm in which a lack of traditional musical focus became his forte, one in which he was free to indulge an obviously intense and far-reaching love of music that reached way, way back. If anyone has defined the concept of dance-punk in the 21st Century so far, it's Murphy, merging the repetition of dance music with the primitive, lo-fi sounds of the DIY aesthetic, subtly embracing concepts of youth and nostalgia at once.

There may, however, have been doubters when that first album dropped: 'Daft Punk Is Playing At My House', for example, trod a fine line between novelty record and a little bit too clever for its own good. There may have been cynics out there too: the letters 'DFA', much like the words 'Four' and 'Tet', became a kind of shorthand for those wishing to prove they were hip to what was 'happening', exactly the kind of thing that Murphy had himself satirised in 'Losing My Edge'. But 'Losing My Edge' was no fluke, and when Sound Of Silver arrived in 2007 – Was it really so long ago? Aren't we still playing it and talking about it today? – few could resist. From its muted opening drum patterns and Georgio Moroder synths to Murphy's strained yelps, from the arched eyebrow of 'North American Scum' to the unabashed sentimentality of the Lou Reed indebted 'New York, I Love You', from its krautrock rhythms to its Eno soundscapes, it was a record that looked back to the days when albums were allowed to stretch out, to stray from the anticipated path. So diverse were its styles it initially sounded almost like a compilation, but these began to coalesce until it simply sounded like LCD Soundsystem, uniting critics and fans alike, immune from criticism that “it sounds too much like the last one" or “it doesn't sound enough like the last one". It was, quite simply, great, and it endured. And it did that without James Murphy being forced to compromise on any significant level.

Three years later, with rumours circulating that it'll be the last LCD Soundsystem album – the kind of rumour that flies around more and more these days as bands try to maintain press coverage for more than 15 minutes – Murphy's back with This Is Happening. It's a title at once banal and typically astute: LCD are now part of the mainstream musical establishment, barely more 'happening' – to musical snobs, anyway – than Florence And The Machine. But this is what's 'happening', in every sense of the word, in LCD's world, and LCD's world is the only one that Murphy's ever been terribly concerned about, though it clearly inhabits the same universe as the many sources he liberally borrows from. The question that remains is whether Murphy's lost that so-called edge.

In a sense he has. This Is Happening certainly fails to break much new ground. LCD Soundsystem still sound at least a little like Neu dressed as Roxy Music partying with David Bowie and Lou Reed in an early 80s New York disco, and you get the feeling on tracks like 'Somebody's Calling Me' – possibly not helped by video clips of Murphy banging out its two note riff with a couple of bottles of wine and a mobile phone sitting on the piano, or Murphy and his colleagues palling around in the impressive Californian mansion that they converted into a studio – that not a lot of thought went into This Is Happening's songwriting. But LCD Soundsystem excel at the cumulative effect, the lengthy gestation a track can require before it offers its payload. Even though 'Somebody's Calling Me' owes more than a significant debt to Iggy Pop's 'Nightclubbing', it isn't short of imagination: it's instead reliant upon Murphy's instinct that the hypnotic effect of two piano notes and a melody that drones like a medicated robot, while the shrill keyboard sounds Bowie and Eno perfected on Low grate the song's skin, will suffice. And it turns out he's right. Again. It was a trick he perfected over and over again on Sound Of Silver, the apparent simplicity of his songs drilling their way into heads effortlessly over time, allowing them to remain fresh while sounding eternally familiar.

In fact, This Is Happening is full of the same references, and plays many of the same games that its predecessor did: 'One Touch' may be a thudding, gritty piledriver, like Kraftwerk operating a Chieftain tank, but it's driven by a rhythm track that's remarkable similar to 'Sound Of Silver', while current single 'Drunk Girls' could be twinned with 'North American Scum'. Murphy's low harmonies and more serious attempts at genuine singing still recall Bowie at his more theatrical, and in fact The Dame's shadow hangs as heavy over This Is Happening as it did over Sound Of Silver, with 'All I Want' seemingly based around the guitar sound central to the classic 'Heroes'. That Murphy's employing the same techniques that made Sound Of Silver so memorable means that This Is Happening inevitably fails to make a similar impact: this time around, there is indeed a danger that “it sounds too much like the last one". But the truth is that its songs are every bit as good. They just don't sound quite so innovative this time around, as though Murphy's treading water instead of powering ahead, and there's a danger that at times, in his eagerness to share his passions – in his magpie thievery from the kind of records listed in 'Losing My Edge' – he's lecturing a little rather than enthusing.

Nonetheless, once the slight feeling of disappointment at This Is Happening's repetition of old themes has been allowed to settle, there's no denying the bravado and conviction that runs through its 65 minutes. If it flags, it's only because it's generously long. If 'You Wanted A Hit' appears a little self-indulgent – it is, after all, a lengthy and not entirely necessary justification for their working methods that offers such insight as “You wanted a hit / But that's not what we do / And we won't be your babies anymore" – it's nothing new to find Murphy gazing at his own navel, and at least he does so with wit and in the context of a nine minute epic that is arguably as lush as the sound he ironically claims during its course his label demanded of him. But frankly the album doesn't flag, and 'You Wanted A Hit' actually offers a surprisingly poignant climax. Disappointment here can only come from expectations that are too high: Murphy's defined his sound and, frankly, with only two LCD albums (and the 'variations' album of 45'33") under his belt, he should be allowed to mine the seam he discovered for a little longer, though with caveats hopefully noted.

So if you enjoyed Sound Of Silver you'd have to be a curmudgeon to be anything less than excited at 'Pow Pow''s tom-tom fired funk, especially when it explodes into kaleidoscopic colours at its end. You'd have to be a leaden-footed rhino not to feel the PVC bass that drops in halfway through 'Dance Yrself Clean'. You'd have to be a cloth-eared punk purist not to find joy in 'I Can Change''s retro-futurist synth-pop, in which Murphy intones “Never change, never change, never change / That's just who I fell in love with", but which he concludes by singing “I can change, I can change, I can change / If it helps you fall in love". The thing is, he hasn't yet reached a point where he needs to change. Next time, perhaps (assuming there is a next time), but for now James Murphy knows what he's doing. There's still life in the dance-punk cartoon beast he's created, and though it may tire eventually, at the end of the day he knows far too much to be a know-it-all.