“We’ve always talked about how we’d never betray anyone who cares about us, but here we are now,” James Murphy wrote in a lengthy Facebook post early last year, shortly after the news had broken that his band, LCD Soundsystem, would be returning after just five years of “retirement.” After the surprise and the jaded lack of surprise and the JAY-Z jokes had cleared, it seems, there was a contingent of fans that had voiced its disappointment—not out of some concern for the band cashing in, necessarily, but because they felt cheated out of their grief. As documented in 2012’s Shut Up And Play The Hits, Murphy had turned LCD’s farewell show at Madison Square Garden into a living wake, an emotional moment with hugging, teary fans saying goodbye not only to the band but, it felt, to the entire era of music that had formed the backbone of their swaggering youth (and that Murphy had spent years commenting on, both wryly and sentimentally). To come back now cheapened that moment, Murphy worried, and he fretted openly about making the next album “better than anything we’ve done before” to justify it.
Of course, worrying—reflecting, overthinking—is James Murphy’s natural state, as great an influence on his music as Eno and Bowie’s Berlin years. It’s been that way from the very beginning, when “Losing My Edge” introduced early-’00s scenesters to this Record Store Clerk of Christmas Future who sardonically name-checked all the arcane post-punk bands they’d been rallying around, while also agonizing, semi-sarcastically, about the inevitable dead ends of “cool.” Over the course of three albums, Murphy expanded that neurosis to include losing friends and lovers, to becoming increasingly estranged from your own city, to no longer feeling connected to much of anyone or anything.
He only doubled down on the inward-looking self-deprecation, but to Murphy’s apparent, continued surprise, he inadvertently captured the inner monologues of an entire generation, one that was preemptively obsessed with its own fleeting youth—whether it was because 9/11 freaked everyone out, or just because all of its culture was recycled shit from the ’70s and ’80s. On the new American Dream, that worry has never been more acutely, specifically personal in its detail, yet it still remains empathetically understood by anyone who still remembers that feeling. I guess we’re all still going through that shit. I guess we will be forever.
As far as American Dream being better than that estimable trilogy that preceded it, well, it depends mightily on how you define “better.” It’s a beautifully produced, masterfully realized album, but it’s also a bit of a downer and an unusually slow burn. There is nothing with the immediate punch of songs like “Tribulations” or “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”; nothing with the floor-filling power of “Dance Yrself Clean”; nothing with the anthemic, smiling-through-tears sweep of “Someone Great” or “All My Friends.” Although, there is “Tonite,” whose squelchy funk bass and vocodered, neon-stair-stepping refrain glides right into the disco pleasure centers, before Murphy grabs the DJ’s mic and launches into a stand-up routine about the emptiness of the exact kind of live-for-the-moment pop songs it’s emulating: “It’s ruling the airwaves / What remains of the airwaves,” Murphy smirks. “I never realized that these artists thought so much about time.”
But even “Tonite”—the seemingly requisite LCD song about songs, in the tradition of “Movement,” “You Wanted A Hit,” et al.—has some deeper things on its mind. LCD started out as “a snarky record-jerk band that could outsnark even the most curmudgeonly, hyper-knowledgeable record dork,” Murphy recently told The New York Times. “That is not what we are now.” So while “Tonite” takes typically barbed, absurdist jabs at both those archetypal kids coming up from behind (“these bullying children of the fabulous / raffling off limited-edition shoes”) and the crusty old guy delivering them (“I’m a reminder, the hobbled veteran, of the disc-shop inquisition,” he says, later adding, “Oh good gracious, I sound like my mom!”), it’s also got some bigger, more existential concerns. “Life is finite, but shit, it feels like forever,” he sings near the song’s beginning. By the end, he’s offering reassurance to all those preemptive curmudgeons, old and new, that no matter what, it was time well spent: “You hate the idea that you’re wasting your youth / That you stood in the background, oh, until you got older / But that’s all lies.”
If anyone needs to hear that sentiment, it’s Murphy himself. American Dream is positively consumed by anxiety over passing time: The slowly swooning, Phil Spector-ish title track serenades the listener through a morning-after comedown after a trip that could be acid or your 20s, offering the cutting reminder “In the morning, everything’s clearer / When the sunlight exposes your age.” On “I Used To,” over an incessant freight-train chug of a rock beat and melancholy synth swirls, Murphy sounds downright Robert Smith-ian in his morose assessment of how “I used to dance alone of my own volition,” the closing refrain switching from “I still try to wake up” to “I’m too tired to wake up.” He’s even more direct on “Change Yr Mind”: “I’m not dangerous now the way I used to be once,” he sings. “I’m just too old for it now.” Murphy has always been modern music’s foremost chronicler of aging, but he’s never sounded this old.
That’s not reflected in the music, thank goodness. Both “Change Yr Mind” and the seductively paranoid rant of “Other Voices” (“These doors all have locks on them like tinfoil hats, man”) are built on the group’s elastic, enduring amalgam of disco-punk bass and Talking Heads-derived nervy energy, right down to the Frippertronics on the guitar. Early single “Call The Police” may get slit-your-wrists maudlin in its Neil Young-paraphrasing refrain of “We all know this is nothing / We all know this is nowhere,” but it does so in one of the sunniest, sing-song melodies in the band’s catalog and over an anthemic build that seems to stretch out forever. And the scratchy harmonics and scabrous, Pop Group-like energy of “Emotional Haircut” give the song enough balls to overcome the silliness of its call-and-response refrain, along with turning what could be a self-pitying narration of hotel room crisis into an explosively cathartic rush into the streets.
“You got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete / And you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat,” Murphy sings there, and while the music around him does its level best to say fuck it, let’s go out, it’s still a haunting, tellingly straightforward confession from a guy who once hid that sort of thing behind ironic detachment and meta reference. That sense of loss, of people slipping away, of growing distance pervades American Dream, and it does so disarmingly directly: The nine-minute gothic centerpiece “How Do You Sleep?” finds Murphy, howling over a desolate tribal rhythm, making good on its Lennon-biting title with a kiss-off presumably directed at estranged DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy, making digs that are both injured (“I remember when we were friends / I remember calling you ‘friend’”) and oh-shit lacerating (“You warned me about the cocaine / Then dove straight in”). Also, bizarrely funny: “You left me here with the vape clowns,” Murphy sings, and I’m going to say “ouch” for all those vape clowns at his label.
But it’s on the 12-minute closer “Black Screen” that Murphy drops all pretense of cleverness and just speaks from the heart, offering a eulogy to his late hero David Bowie—a man he deems “between a friend and a father,” and someone who “talked to me like I was inside.” For a snarky record-jerk who’s made no secret of his idol worship—who turned it into a song, and then a career—his awe is palpable at being welcomed into Bowie’s fold as a peer and collaborator on his final album, Blackstar, and it’s understandably tinged with grief for it all happening at the very end of Bowie’s life. “Couldn’t make our wedding day / Too sick to travel,” the song begins, before Murphy kicks himself over wasted moments in the studio (“I had fear in the room / So I stopped turning up / My hands kept pushing down in my pockets / I’m bad with people things, but I should have tried more”) and heartbreakingly admitting to going back over old email exchanges, saying, “I read them back sometimes to remember.” It’s a moving tribute to the artist who most inspired him—to the man who he says convinced him to get LCD Soundsystem back together in the first place. And it makes sense that Murphy would express himself most honestly when he’s talking about music.
In the time between LCD records, many of the artists Murphy and his fellow record jerks admire have left us: Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed. For the kind of guy who lives and breathes this stuff—and, to his own professed surprise, has made a similar impact on others—it’s understandable that he would be a tad preoccupied with mortality these days. Murphy is 47 now, a father who spent his retirement years, however brief, getting really into wine and roasting his own coffee. Meanwhile, the seedy nightclub concerns of the New York scene he came up in have given way to pop-up restaurants and people knowing a lot about fancy cheese; the bands he once jostled with and lovingly lampooned have largely scattered and been memorialized in paperback. It makes sense that Murphy—the scenester oracle who saw how mercurial this all was from the very beginning—would be anxious about what it all meant and what he’s leaving behind. But even if he never releases another album, and the darkly moving American Dream marked the end for real this time, James Murphy has nothing to worry about.