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Life After Cool

On LCD Soundsystem’s new album, James Murphy’s mock midlife crisis becomes a genuine subdued panic—and makes for some of his most mature music yet.

James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem performs during Splendour in the Grass 2017 on July 23 in Byron Bay, Australia.
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem performs during Splendour in the Grass 2017 on July 23 in Byron Bay, Australia.
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

In anticipation of LCD Soundsystem’s new album American Dream, the band’s frontman and impresario James Murphy spent three hours one night last month chit-chatting with Tom Scharpling on The Best Show. (In Murphy’s demographic niche, comedy-phone-call specialist Scharpling has roughly the status Walter Cronkite once did on the CBS Evening News: “the most trusted man in America.”) Between plentiful New Jersey punk-club anecdotes and banter on the aesthetics of prog, Murphy came up with ideas for band merch: one T-shirt saying “Record Store Jerks Saved My Life,” and another, “If You’re Not in Excruciating Pain, It’s Always a Good Time.”

If those slogans don’t make you laugh or sigh, LCD Soundsystem may not be the band for you. Though its first commandment is thou shalt groove, LCD’s scripture is that of a middle-aged Caucasian fussbudget preoccupied with the lost illusions of 20th-century boho undergrounds. One whose appetite for African polyrhythms traces to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the back catalog of 1980s NYC avant-disco label 99 Records. I’d like to be able to argue that Murphy’s mind and ear have enough lift to transcend that pigeonhole. That he can call his existential indigestion “excruciating pain,” despite a lifestyle so rich that a couple of years ago he literally developed gout, yet still make music that hopscotches the fractured world. That his art contains sufficient élan to nourish souls outside his subculture, the way his guiding spirit David Bowie assuredly did. But since Murphy and I would count as card-carrying members of the same general cultural tribe (if it weren’t the kind that abhors carrying cards), it’s not an argument I feel authorized to make.

Still, I would venture that American Dream—the group’s first album in seven years, and six years after LCD famously went out on a “perfect swan dive” with a sold-out retirement show at Madison Square Garden in April 2011—might in fact be the best place for the uninitiated or previously unconvinced to begin with Murphy’s work. The band’s career was kickstarted in 2002 with the mock-midlife-crisis monologue “Losing My Edge” about feeling too long in the tooth at 32 to participate in youth culture anymore. (Another joke T-shirt idea from Murphy: “I Think He’s Losing His Edge” with an arrow pointing sideways, “I’m With Stupid”–style.) But that was Murphy creating a hipster strawman, winning the game of cool by pretending to fail at it. This hip-to-be-square routine is why Chris Richards of the Washington Post recently called Murphy “our Huey Lewis.” Today, Murphy is 47. That he’s too old to be cool is a given. The question becomes whether there’s life after cool—whether it’s worth carrying on in a body that’s forever breaking down, and in a culture that seems further and further away from the ideas you built your life around. The mock midlife crisis has become the genuine subdued panic.

This is a Murphy grown wiser and less wise-assed, making an album much less in-group–directed than anything by LCD 1.0—of necessity, since the in-group it used to address can no longer be said to exist. (See Lizzy Goodman’s recent oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011, in which the hyper-opinionated Murphy supplies many of the best quotes and that milieu’s inflated impression of itself is sadly self-evident.) American Dream may be less rock ’n’ roll fun than the LCD of yore, but it’s also the first time I don’t ever suspect Murphy of posturing, of trying to put anything over on the listener or, perhaps, simply second- and third-guessing himself. Rather than tarnishing the band’s past, as so many reunion albums do—and as some fans understandably feared after Murphy so soon about-faced on his strident declarations of retirement—American Dream, to my ears, does a lot to deepen its legacy.

Murphy is an artist I find at once difficult and almost too easy to write about, as his songs come frontloaded explicitly with so much of the analysis and commentary that would usually be my own domain. He practically makes music criticism in musical form, which somehow seemed like an obvious thing to do at the point LCD Soundsystem debuted. It was the turn of the century, with the retrospective mood that brings, and arguably the end of the rock hegemony and its template of “alternative” culture. Online annotation was becoming a collective lifestyle for the first time, and LCD Soundsystem was live-blogging the dance floor. Also, the band’s lower Manhattan home base had just been hit by a civilization-shifting catastrophe. Murphy was a lifelong music-culture obsessive, a soundman and veteran of failed bands who was nearly a decade older than most of the art students and cool kids around him forming frantically escapist, overhyped disco-punk (“electroclash,” if we must) and retro-new-wave groups. He was not only ideally positioned but by all appearances helplessly compelled to offer a longer view, often acerbically but also as a mentoring big brother. Few bands so riddled with irony have also chased communal solidarity so earnestly.

At a distance, I identified. He and I are nearly the same age and grew up in the 1970s and 1980s grasping for the same kinds of “weird” cultural life preservers in central-eastern small towns (in New Jersey and Ontario, respectively), then rushed to the metropolises to molt from observers to participants. Our reference points line up with an annoying regularity. I had to laugh at the recognition I felt when he and Scharpling talked about their surprise on first encountering the jock-aggro of hardcore punk scenes, having thought punk and “new music” were meant to be antidotes to machismo.

And in the early 2000s, while Murphy was starting his DFA label and then LCD Soundsystem, I was playing a similar filtering role as a critic and sometime show-promoter amid a mess of younger experimental bands that was sprouting up through the pavement in Toronto. Having passed through more than one such scene before, each of us began reflecting on how they function as quasi-natural phenomena with predictable features, and on the roles and limits and paradoxes of cool, the trickster god that governs all such cults. He was making albums about it, while I eventually wrote a book. Normally this degree of overlap with an artist triggers a kind of instinctive recoil in me, like hearing my own voice on tape or seeing myself in the mirror. Murphy’s self-skepticism got him past my defenses.

And then, by decade’s end, the scenes that were propelling us each sputtered out, as dictated by their life cycles. Those puzzles that had seemed so urgent reverted to the esoteric, like the theological quandaries of a disbanded church: not even really applicable to the way the next generation of our sorts would relate to music. I would guess that’s in part the uncertainty that made Murphy pull the plug on LCD Soundsystem in 2011 and turn to cartoonishly hipster-yuppie avocations such as artisanal coffee roasting and opening a Williamsburg wine bar called The Four Horsemen, each written up in the New Yorker. It’s there that our aesthetics parted ways. (To be fair, he was also getting married and having a baby.) What becomes clear in many of the songs on American Dream is that throughout that phase, some part of him was hiding in bed, with the covers over his head, waiting for the shakes to pass. (And our aesthetics converge again.)

It might seem absurd that the deaths of scenes require mourning periods, but they aren’t unlike extended families splitting apart or languages with no remaining native speakers. There are people for whom scenes of one kind or another—music, theater, crafts, chess, skateboarding, what have you—make the best habitat. These are usually though not always people whose other roots were frayed in the first place, and if the inherent cliquishness of self-appointed “outsiders” grates on your sensibilities, rest assured that the batteries on such life support systems start running down radically around age 40, leaving their past adherents with premature Methuselah syndromes. Murphy’s body of work is starting to resemble a chain of short stories about such characters, like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin cycle, except with even less sympathetic protagonists.

On American Dream, then, LCD Soundsystem is roughly the same band—Murphy writes all the songs, plays many of the instruments, and micromanages the arrangements with a backup crew that includes keyboardist/vocalist Nancy Whang, drummer Pat Mahoney, guitarist Al Doyle, bassist Tyler Pope, and electronics artist Gavin Russom—except that it can’t be the same band. Their people and customs are no more. This is audible on the record, which is far less gilded and cocaine-flushed in its tempos and reverberations, no longer standing to one side at the party making wry repartee but sweeping up the shattered glass in the dawning fog. “These are the haunts that we’re presently haunting,” the band declares (in a guest verse from Whang), “and these are the people we currently haunt.” And on “Tonite” Murphy asks himself, “And what’s it you do again?” And answers, “Oh, I’m a reminder.”

A reminder of what? Among other things, those two Best Show imaginary T-shirts, which more or less sum up American Dream’s central themes.

“Record-Store Jerks Saved My Life”: On one level, American Dream is an extended tribute to Murphy’s many cantankerous musical idols, so many of them lost in the years LCD has been away. He told the New York Times over the summer, “It’s like when all your light bulbs start going out at the same time. And there’s no one to replace them.” Among the fallen to whom the album pays homage lyrically or sonically are Alan Vega of Suicide (whose “Dream Baby Dream” is the template for opening track “Oh Baby”), Lou Reed, Prince, Leonard Cohen (whose louche and tinny 1977 prom-queen-seduction waltz “Memories” seems to me the musical model for this album’s title track), and above all David Bowie.

In his final years, the man who fell to Earth became a personal mentor to Murphy, somewhere “between a friend and a father,” as he sings. The album’s lengthy closing track “Black Screen” is a eulogy, clearly titled in tribute to Bowie’s farewell album, Blackstar, to which Murphy made some minor contributions. It ends with an image of Bowie returned to outer space to coordinates unknown, followed by a long wordless synthesizer coda, underlining the vacuum Murphy feels these artists have left. On the song “American Dream,” he evokes Alan Vega’s former leather-clad, chain-swinging stage persona, then sings, “And you couldn’t know he was leaving/ But now more will go with age, you know—/ So get up, and stop your complaining … ” One way to hear American Dream is as Murphy rousing himself to shoulder the forsaken mission of the late-modernist semi-popular song because as its disciple he could not bear to hear it go out with a whimper.

“If You’re Not in Excruciating Pain, It’s Always a Good Time”: This dialect of negation” (as Murphy puts it in “Tonite”), floats everywhere through this album. Sure, he’s fine, fine, fine, except that he isn’t. Yes, it’s partly a depiction of an aging scenester’s anxiety in what’s come to feel to him like a context of no context. “How Do You Sleep?”, a slow-building howl of a song, signals with its title, taken from John Lennon’s 1971 musical poison-pen letter to Paul McCartney, that it’s directed at Murphy’s former DFA label partner Tim Goldsworthy, who suddenly ghosted on the project one night. What makes it more than gossip fodder, more worthwhile than another cross-swipe between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to 10th-generation house beats, is that Murphy’s grievance isn’t over the gear Goldsworthy’s alleged to have lifted from their studio, but that they’d been supposed to build something lasting together. Instead, “you left me here amid the vape clouds” (be it resolved that vaping is current urban shorthand for insubstantial trends), another case of “one step forward, six steps back,” as Murphy chants. Amid a vortex of early Cure or Public Image Ltd.–like synths, it’s a primal scream about the frustration of one’s closest affinities becoming one’s deepest enmities. If even this intimate level of collaboration can’t be managed, then how is there any hope of navigating larger divides?

This record might as easily have borrowed its title from Canadian writer Lynn Crosbie’s own recent, exquisitely excruciating collection of midlife-malcontent meditations, Life Is About Losing Everything. But it didn’t. It’s called American Dream, with its cover art of an excessively blue sky adrift with trying-too-hard clouds, because it’s reaching out to a broader-based malaise. I think this is why “How Can You Sleep?” is followed by the trilogy of songs released in advance, “Tonite,” “Call the Police,” and “American Dream,” which I would call Murphy’s Trump suite—except that it would be too uncool even at this age for him to be so blatant about it. So “Tonite” seems like it’s about pop charts and selfies, and “American Dream” about casual sex and hangovers, and “Call the Police”—well, it actually seems like it’s about the political situation, straight up, that old, familiar, Nov. 9, 2016, feeling. (Though it’s from a Murphy-esque standpoint, so it also poses the option of whether to stay and deal or just “move to Berlin”—but then adds, “That’s not the state I’m in.”)

In “Tonite,” meanwhile, comes these telling lines: “Reasonable people know better than you/ That cost, in the long run, but they don’t know the short game/ And terrible people know better than you.” A succinct sketch of the 2016 election campaign. And in “American Dream,” the hedonistic subject-object of the song is asked to “look what happened when you were dreaming/ then punch yourself in the face.” An up-to-date prescription for vanquishing your inner Nazi, perhaps, or at least your complacent liberalism.

I don’t want to make too much of that, and neither does Murphy, because while these thoughts are part of the disco ball–illuminated journal he’s sharing here, it’s only in the way they’d be crossing the mind of any reasonably aware grown-up now, particularly a New York aesthete. They could be taken for an awkward match with LCD Soundsystem’s custom repertoire of vintage-synthesizer dance-rock, easily profiled as music to gentrify urban neighborhoods by. Still, however off-kilter his other boulevardier schemes have been (his subway-turnstiles plan was a particularly charming clueless gem), the one that Murphy hit on nearly two decades back, of shouting and crooning his manifestos over mutant-child-of–James Brown party jams, still holds up. It’s the old trick of telling people things they don’t want to hear, in a form they can’t stop listening to. It’s a way for an artist who doubts his own moral authority to trap his most pressing impulses in a frame that acknowledges their likely frivolity.

Murphy comes at that issue directly in the second track, “Other Voices,” which amid a percolating electro-drum-circle jive right out of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (“Once in a Lifetime” specifically) keeps telling the audience, “You’re just a baby now, you’re just a baby now, with soft hands and doe eyes, resisting other voices.” (Directed at himself? America? The short-fingered vulgarian president? His own 2-year-old child?) Then he adds, “You should be uncomfortable,” which is what Bowie told Murphy when he admitted he was considering getting the band back together, at a point some listeners were sure to consider premature after the big farewell. Yielding the stage to Whang for a whole verse here (one of the funniest and most poignant on the album) is uncharacteristic of Murphy. It may be a nod to the issue of whether he’s really the person to be speaking his piece at this juncture in history, in contrast with “Other Voices,” like that of his Asian American female keyboardist, or any of the other less well-compensated cultures he bricolages in his band’s sound. Although “time isn’t over [and] times aren’t better,” Murphy chastises himself, “you can’t be believed, and you cannot believe what you are told.”

So I might tell you that American Dream is an album in which I find insight and motivation and fellow feeling amid this never ending red alert. I might say its rhythms carry me from dark to light and back, that I’m galvanized by its humor and earnest bewilderedness, and merely by Murphy’s minor-key courage in putting his stocky graying frame out there again as an implausible pop acrobat, fully prepared to be laughed off. But that’s purely from the perspective of us castoff reminders of other bad times past, so I can’t be believed, and I cannot know how it may sound to you.

It makes me think of the end of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, if only because everything makes me think about that at the moment. (Very abstract spoilers follow.) The aging, white, male American hero tries to bring his own accumulated esoteric knowledge to bear on an urgent crisis, but for all that he earnestly cares, his is a secondhand sympathetic experience of trauma, or of trauma by analogy, by poetry and dream. He misunderstands trauma’s workings, that history always will out, that (as Murphy sings) “time won’t be messed with, buddy”—and his well-meaning efforts to suppress and undo it spark a wild dislocation, perhaps even a cobra effect.

A supplementary LCD Soundsystem album threatens none of these dire consequences, of course, but we listeners to whom it speaks most clearly might try to beware the cosseting comfort of the class reunion, lest all that compelling conversation drown out other voices, other screams. The best case I can make for American Dream is that it’s well-aware of that potential redundancy, no longer in love with even the playacted grandiosity of self-projection, though that remains the junk pile it has to work with. It’s just here, doing its best with it, because it has nowhere else left to go. And in popular music, or the semi-popular kind, that’s an unusual truth to get across. If you’re not in excruciating pain.