Love him or hate him, it’d be hard to deny that James Murphy’s gotten away with a lot over the years. Although few would dispute his reign as New York’s king of arty dance rock, Murphy’s career under the LCD Soundsystem name consists of moments that would entail cred suicide for just about anybody else. On 2005’s self-titled debut alone, he turned five minutes of the same three-chord riff (no more clever than that of Weezer’s junior high hit of the same year, “Beverly Hills”) into a wiseass dancefloor anthem by way of a Daft Punk namecheck, unabashedly rewrote “Dear Prudence” (a move reminiscent of Oasis at best, or even Jet), and slung far too many lyrical throwaways to count (e.g., “Beats/ On repeat/ Beating on me/ From every car in the street”).
But with little more than a wink and a nod, Murphy can turn sin into selling point. LCD’s discography has enjoyed almost uniformly rave reviews, continues to build a loyal fanbase not just in NYC but the world over (his records go Top 40 in Britain), and has even garnered fat paycheck collaborations with the likes of NIKE. In Murphy’s alchemist hands, jock-rock shitriffs become witty parody, bold rip-offs become referential tributes, bad lyrics become commentary on bad lyrics, and so on.
But for my part, I’ve never been able to believe in the guy. Less a few solid exceptions (such as the great, mostly-instrumental running mix 45:33), Murphy struck me as being such a keen satirist of the irony-insulated, style-over-substance hipster only because he was one himself. So it didn’t surprise me that Album 3, This Is Happening, is pretty much par for the LCD course. With nine distended, carefully scripted jams spread across 60 minutes, Murphy fires his token smart-dumb party salvo in “Drunk Girls,” tests how much he can lift from classics like David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” before someone cries foul, and self-consciously fumbles around a clutch of clunkers like, “You wanted the time/ But maybe I can’t do time/ Oh, we both know that’s an awful line/ But it doesn’t make it wrong.”
What did surprise me is that for once, I can agree. Despite its length, This Is Happening is LCD Soundsystem’s sharpest and most concise record, offering up just as many winners as I found between the combined three discs of the self-titled and 2007’s Sound of Silver. And though I went in hoping for a dramatic reinvention, it’s by no means a departure from Murphy’s familiar template. In fact, if anyone were looking to criticize this album, its striking resemblance to the first two albums would be a fine place to start.
But therein lies one of the record’s biggest strengths: This Is Happening takes LCD’s signature post-punk + disco-ball equation and simplifies it beautifully. Although the average song length hovers above the seven-minute mark, each tune is trimmed and tightened to the point that it actually feels economical. The exaggerated vocal tics and lyrical stumbles, which could occasionally grate on previous outings, now sound like they’ve all found their right place. (That there’s far less of them probably helps.) And most importantly, the backing tracks are the most focused and refined lot he’s produced to date. “Dance Yrself Clean” turns Murphy’s familiar social anxieties into a striding behemoth of muted tension and synth-stabbing relief, while “Drunk Girls” bests its predecessor singles “North American Scum” and “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” in the raucous wit department. The lazy charm of “Somebody’s Calling Me” is perhaps bolstered by its obvious Iggy-griftin’, and the hypnotizing “You Wanted A Hit” is far catchier than any nine-minute, ostensibly structureless piece of music logically should be. Admittedly, the onomatopoetic bludgeoning of “Pow Pow” quickly beats itself into headache territory, but one misstep on such a generously portioned record isn’t tough to forgive.
Another significant tweak to the LCD equation is Murphy’s pointed inversion of his old sincere-to-sardonic ratio. The first two records seemed most comfortable keeping the listener at a couple arms’ length of irony and sarcasm, only rarely opening up for a heartfelt moment or two. But even when not going for the emotional jugular on highlights like “All I Want” and “Home,” This Is Happening is surprisingly heart-on-sleeve. “I Can Change” is an endearing I’ll-do-anything paean for love; “You Wanted A Hit” is a proud anthem for the DFA Records family; and “Dance Yrself Clean” practically seethes with angst-ridden conviction. The unusually personal nature of the album also manifests in an ever-present ‘home’ motif, as though Murphy’s begun to wonder where everyone goes — and what they do there — after the party’s ended.
These fine-detail improvements are what make This Is Happening LCD’s best work to date, though mumblings about how Murphy might be repeating himself a bit remain valid. The fact that he’s predicted this to be the final record he puts out under the moniker suggests it’s a concern he shares, though in an age of blink-and-you-missed-it retirements, those kind of statements come with an implied grain of salt. If he does return, a dramatic reinvention might be a wise idea after all. But for now, Murphy gets by once again with a wink and a nod — and this time, a whole lotta heart.