Review: LCD Soundsystem, American Dream

American Dream is a grand return to form and the culmination of Murphy’s many talents.
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American Dream is a grand return to form and the culmination of Murphy’s many talents.
LCD Soundsystem American Dream

There’s a Pythagorean beauty, a classical harmony, to a trilogy. The geometry of a triangle mirrors the elegance of a narrative arc: beginning, middle, and end. Trilogies abound in popular culture, from Sophocles to J. R. R. Tolkien, George Lucas to Christopher Nolan, David Bowie to Kanye West. James Murphy created his own after prematurely announcing the dissolution of LCD Soundsystem, following the release of a dance-rock tryptic — LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver, and This is Happening — that was beloved by critics and fans alike. Murphy even added a figurative punctuation mark to LCD Soundsystem’s literal end-stop, a legendary Madison Square Garden performance that was in equal parts valediction and wake.

Nothing, from a human life to an exaggerated retirement, lasts forever. Just as the original Star Wars franchise has been resurrected with supplementary trilogies and spinoffs, LCD Soundsystem arrives with American Dream, a grand return to form and the culmination of Murphy’s many talents. Coming six years after This is Happening, the new LP’s release should’ve been likened to the extended album cycles of other cherished, painstaking artists and groups: The Knife, Fiona Apple, Daft Punk, My Bloody Valentine, and Kate Bush, just to name a few recent examples. Even Sleater-Kinney, who flirted with an outright breakup in 2006, returned nine years later to modest fanfare. LCD Soundsystem’s last waltz at MSG — which was recorded, screened in movie theaters, and eventually released as a lavish vinyl boxed set — was, instead, a monument erected to honor a medium-length hiatus.

Yeah, I know how hollow, and manipulative, the send-off feels today. I was there (“I was there!”) for LCD’s penultimate show, at an intimate NYC venue two days before the big MSG gig. It was magical. And yet, I’m happy to retroactively downgrade the experience for a new LCD Soundsystem album that stands as Murphy’s most accomplished to date, from all angles.

Once the dust settles, I suspect this hullabaloo, of a (supposedly) calculated termination, will sink to the bottom of the page, a curious footnote, a blimp-like blip, a fun fact, in the grand scheme of LCD Soundsystem’s narrative. In a recent interview with New York, Murphy said the latest record is “a completely new phase for the band.” The original trilogy of albums was “a thing, and now [American Dream] is the beginning of another period. So there’s a big fucking moat of breaking the band up and coming back that helps clarify different eras.”

Those words, however self-serving, also happen to be true. James Murphy has looked at hipness from both sides now. The first iteration of his LCD Soundsystem project was born from an early-30s panic of cool slipping away, epitomized on the unlikely breakout single “Losing My Edge”. Fifteen years later, and well into his forties, Murphy is still grappling with mortality through a different, more universal, lens. Familiar bullet points remain — aging, relationships (both platonic and romantic), fading hipsterdom — but time has widened, deepened, and personalized the raw materials of his lyrical foundry.

American Dream is as close to a unified artistic statement that Murphy has delivered. I’d argue it’s his first front-to-back, total triumph. Had Murphy sold this as a concept album (which he hasn’t), I would’ve easily bought the claim. Themes seep from one song to the next; lyrics cross-reference each other; and a sense of menace hangs above it all like a giant umbrella, shielding the tunes from the azure, sunlit painting of the record’s blindingly oppressive cover art.

You’d have to boil down the entire R.E.M. discography to match Murphy’s recurring mentions here to sleep, dreams, and wakefulness. His first words are, “Oh baby, you’re having a bad dream in my arms.” Later into “Oh Baby”, he pleads, “please wake me.” On “I Used To”, he sings, “I’m still trying to wake up.” And then, on “Change Yr Mind”, he admits, “I ain’t seen anyone for days/ I still have yet to leave the bed.” The title of “How Do You Sleep?” is repeated as an accusation to a long-lost friend. If the album’s name weren’t itself enough to drive the motif home, its corresponding track begins with, “Wake up with somebody near you/ and at someone else’s place.” On American Dream’s concluding song and Bowie elegy, “Black Screen”, Murphy sighs, “We were just waking up for a hard interrupt.”

So what’s the deal with all of this supine, sleepy imagery? It’s the hallmark of clinical depression, whose dark robes wrap these ten tracks in a tight swaddle. I don’t mean to play the pop-psychologist, but an inescapable woe accompanies the incessant beats and guitar bursts of LCD Soundsystem’s glorious rebirth. The black dog howls throughout American Dream.

American Dream represents a high point for Murphy, not only as a songwriter, but also as a meticulous sonic architect and an exuberant performer. He’s constructed and executed most of these songs on his own. Sometimes they’re mind-bendingly knotty, but they’re always immensely satisfying. As the album progresses, a slow burn early on, synth flourishes, drum beats, and guitar riffs build to tantric levels of foreplay without obvious climaxes.

That is until its blazing middle stretch — from “How Do You Sleep?” to “Tonight” to “Call the Police” to the title track — where American Dream goes from good to great. Its two final songs only suffer, a bit, by comparison. That’s OK. After all, when placed side-by-side against LCD Soundsystem’s weakest tracks here, the Hot 100 shrinks and indie darlings shudder in James Murphy’s growing shadow. Retirement? Murphy can sleep when he’s dead. For now, he’s wide awake. A