The End of LCD Soundsystem

How a chubby “old” guy became king of the hipsters.

James Murphy

LCD Soundsystem, the dance-punk band led by James Murphy, played its final show on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. The Garden is a huge venue for a scruffy indie act like LCD Soundsystem, a setting worthy of an event, and Murphy and company delivered one: first, a pre-concert ticket controversy and, on Saturday, a show that stretched more than three hours, complete with special guests (three members of Arcade Fire, joining in on backing vocals) and a set list designed for the cognoscenti, including 45:33, a song that, in its recorded version, clocks in at the exact length of its title.

In the rock press, the band’s farewell is headline news. Pitchfork marked the occasion by producing an annotated catalogue raisonné, with essays on all 46 studio recordings released in LCD Soundsystem’s eight-year-long run. Esquire published an oral history under the heady title “How James Murphy Changed Music.” The Onion’s A.V. Club, the paper’s serious (i.e., not satirical) arts-and-culture supplement, offered an “Open Letter to LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy” from critic Steven Hyden—a deranged fanboy’s cri de coeur:

In case you’re wondering—I know you’re not, but humor me here—I won’t be attending the big three-hour LCD Soundsystem send-off concert Saturday at New York’s Madison Square Garden. I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty that I didn’t get in; unlike seemingly every other one of your fans, I didn’t even try to get tickets. Nothing is fucked here, James. I’m fine missing it. It’s not like you’re dying or something. … C’mon, you know we always loved LCD Soundsystem. You gave us no other choice but to love LCD, because you constructed the band in such a way as to make it impervious to criticism. … You made classic albums; a lot of people seem to think Sound Of Silver was your first masterpiece, but I loved the self-titled debut from 2005, too. … James, you’re on the precipice of perhaps LCD Soundsystem’s biggest triumph yet, and it’s going to be the last. Once again, you’ve made yourself invincible.

Something is fucked here, James. The lamentations for LCD Soundsystem make little sense, since it’s unclear that there’s anything to lament. Strictly speaking, a band called LCD Soundsystem never existed. It wasn’t a group; it was a pseudonym: Murphy wrote, produced, recorded, and sang every note of every LCD song. Eventually, Murphy whipped a shifting cast of musicians into one of indie’s most vigorous and danceable live acts, but there was never any question that this was a solo artist with a backing band. “I don’t have to sit there and pretend it’s a democracy and really be trying to control everything,” Murphy told Tom Breihan of the Village Voice in 2007. “I don’t have to do any of that. It’s all out on the table: this is how it’s going to work, and I don’t have to subtly browbeat anyone to get them to do what I want them to do.”

What does it mean for a one-man band to disband? Murphy has indicated that he will keep producing records. As best I can tell, he’s never said that he’s retiring from performing, nor has he ruled out the possibility of dipping into LCD’s back catalog at some future date. Perhaps he’s planning a hiatus; maybe he’ll resurface with a different sound, although given his track record—the single-mindedness with which he’s explored rock-flavored dance music with roots in post-punk—I’m doubtful about a stylistic overhaul. In other words, this vaunted farewell is more or less a story of semantics. The crowd at sold-out Garden on Saturday came to say goodbye to LCD Soundsystem the name, not LCD Soundsystem the thing. It was a funeral for a moniker.

Funerals, the figurative kind, are what James Murphy is all about: He’s always specialized in elegies. Murphy emerged at the turn of the last decade as the production mastermind behind DFA Records, the fearsomely fashionable Brooklyn-based label that he co-owns. He quickly established himself as a leading indie auteur, marrying the buzzy, busy sound of late-’70s/early-’80s disco-punk to 21st-century digital crispness. With a single brilliant record, the Rapture’s sonata-for-cowbell “House of Jealous Lovers,” Murphy sent hipster wallflowers stampeding to the dancefloor, transforming the tastes, and untightening the backsides, of white urban bohemia. DFA’s music felt new, but it sounded old. Murphy is a revivalist and, like all revivalists, a softie; his records gazed back at the Manhattan downtown scene of a quarter-century earlier—to Talking Heads and Liquid Liquid and ESG—longing for a lost musical utopia that graded into longing for a lost city: the raggedy, arty New York that vanished in the boom-bust-boom cycles of a new gilded age.

When Murphy stepped out from behind the mixing desk, the elegiac quality you could detect in his music moved from subtext to subject. Murphy seemed a comically ill-suited to the job of frontman. For one thing, he didn’t look the part. What’s more, he was old. A chubby, schlubby studio rat on the wrong side of 30—could this guy be a star?

He pulled it off by making chubby-schlubdom topic A: His demise was his muse. The mission statement is LCD Soundsystem’s debut single “Losing My Edge” (2002), an aging scenester’s lament delivered over a frenetic groove: “I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent. … I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.” The song was hilarious, a barrage of plaints and boasts that perfectly captured hipster anxieties: “I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ‘80s.” “I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids.” “But have you seen my records? This Heat, Pere Ubu, Outsiders, Nation of Ulysses, Mars, the Trojans …” But behind the satire were some of the sturdiest themes in art: desperation, nostalgia, the ruthless march of time. “The kids are coming up from behind,” Murphy drawls. “I can hear the footsteps every night on the decks.”

Since then, Murphy has continued to do the unlikely, wowing indie kids in their 20s with songs about his midlife crisis. There’s “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down,” a half-billet-doux, half-“Dear John” letter to the gentrified city. There’s the anthemic “All My Friends,” about the spiritual toll of bohemian life: “And with a face like a dad and a laughable stand/ You can sleep on the plane or review what you said/ When you’re drunk and the kids look impossibly tan/ You think over and over, ‘Hey, I’m finally dead.’ “*Dance Yrself Clean” from the most recent LCD album This Is Happening (2010) sounds like a valediction: “Every night’s a different story/ It’s a 30-car pile-up with you/ Everybody’s getting younger …/ It’s the end of an era—it’s true.”

Whether the Madison Square Garden concert marks the end of an era remains to be seen. I’m skeptical. Life, even hipster life, goes on after 40, and if This Is Happening is any indication, Murphy has stuff to say about topics other than his own obsolescence—about love, about commitment, about the Police’s reunion tour—not to mention plenty of new tricks for making bodies move to music. In the unlikely event that Saturday night’s concert was Murphy’s last hurrah, we can credit him with a couple of dozen great songs, three good-to-great albums, and a career that inverted the typical musical career pattern of rise-and-decline. His epitaph would be one of the most unusual in pop history: He started late and quit while he was ahead.

Correction, April 4, 2011: The article originally misquoted the lyrics to “All My Friends.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)