LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening: Throwback 10

The near-perfect goodbye (that ultimately wasn’t) turns 10.

The thing you need to understand is that LCD Soundsystem have always been making music about endings.

Back in late 2017, I was down in London to cover the BFI Film Festival for that year and took a break one evening to peruse around a record store or two (like the professional film critic I most definitely am).  Whilst doing my usual window-shopping, I overheard two uni-age boys similarly window-shopping in that performative know-it-all High Fidelity way all uni-age boys who fancy themselves music lovers do when they came across LCD’s then-new album, american dream.  “I heard this one’s supposed to be really good,” one of them opined.  “Nah, I think they’re overrated,” confidently proclaimed the other, “they’re music for critics, they don’t make music that’s about anything.”  Even with the past three years giving plenty of other prime candidates for this award, that statement, delivered with the kind of self-assured certainty only a comfortably well-off late-teens White male uni student can possess, may be the most straight-up wrong thing I heard all decade.  LCD Soundsystem has always been music about the difficulties of getting old and one’s time coming to an end.

Hell, this isn’t even a “well, once they got to Sound of Silver and stopped trying to be so pretentious…” argument!  Sure, the obvious counterpoints can be found in that perfect – and it is a perfect, or at least as close to perfection as anything can be – record’s three major high points.  “Someone Great” communicating an almost catatonic mundane shock at the news of the untimely passing of a close friend, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” rhapsodising a pre-gentrification New York City having its life and culture scrubbed away by then-mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the towering “All My Friends” is a gradually charging rage against the inevitable drifting apart and disappearance of the people who used to ride-or-die for you back when you needed them most with one last cathartic blowout.

(Side-bar: I do, in fact, have such a memory with “All My Friends.”  November 2015.  A ‘photo party’ at the flat of one of my course friends at uni which ended up being attended by others from our course and my fellow student radio exec committee members.  On the decks that maybe three of us knew how to use, someone put on “Friends” as the last song of the night and the ten of us still in the place when it came on immediately sprinted to the living room to pogo around with flailing limbs and wonderful hugs in ‘never tear us apart’ harmony for seven ecstatic minutes whilst tunelessly yelling every last lyric.  Two years later, the host of that party died from suicide and only a very tiny few of us from that group are still in even occasional contact with each other nowadays.  I’ll always have that memory, at least.)

But like I said, you don’t even have to invoke Sound of Silver in order to expose that record shop poseur’s argument as categorically incorrect bullshit!  That obsession with endings and aging is there in full force on the band’s debut statement, “Losing My Edge.”  An eight-minute sardonic character study midlife crisis spilling out all over a Killing Joke bite, it’s both a hilarious takedown of the kind of self-absorbed wannabe hipster who defines themselves entirely by the obscurity of their record collection realising with mounting horror that they used to be with It but now They have changed what It is, and a sympathetic depiction of exactly that.  For once you strip away the litany of musical reference notes both spoken and played, “Edge” is a very relatable song about realising that you’re getting old yet haven’t achieved anything.  It’s an existential spiral whose potential to descend into a pitiless whinge is obfuscated by a primal ass-shake of a groove – god, I still remember the first time that muted digital burp burst forth into a thick distorted bassline; it was one of those Technicolor widescreen moments in my developing music taste – and a blistering sense of humour and self-reflection.

James Murphy, LCD architect, was 32 when he made “Losing My Edge.”  He’d already experienced a lifetime of failure, missed chances, and the Alternative Nation takeover of the major labels who had spent the 90s signing many of the sorts of cool punk bands Murphy had played in.  He was part of a sea change in New York indie that made dance music and DJ-ing cool again, as well as a respected sound engineer, but his potential time in the sun seemed to have passed.  His ticket to stardom, The Rapture, had abandoned him for major label hell.  His partners at influential record label DFA were   settling down with flats and lovers.  His claim to fame of being the coolest DJ in America was being usurped by up-and-comers a decade his junior.  Both his parents passed away within months of each other in 2001.  And even his friends didn’t see him as a rock star.  Instead, Murphy was the guy who, by his own admission in Lizzy Goodman’s excellent oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom, would listen to UNKLE and only hear the samples and bites from Liquid Liquid and Suicide and Can.  Even if “Edge” isn’t autobiographical, it comes from that kind of venting place, from being at the end of your rope and yelling ‘fuck it’ by going down swinging in a blistering ‘and YOU, MOTHERFUCKER’ rant for the ages.

Only that said screed turned out to be the farthest thing from the end.  Tours, critical acclaim, ludicrously overvalued EMI record deals for both the band and the far weirder other music put out on DFA, NME Cool List placements and way more followed.  But Murphy continued to utilise his age as a tool and that anxiety over such throughout his music.  The post-“Edge” singles and self-titled debut full-length pushed harder into that above-it-all sardonic New York cool and music geek reference overload as a deflection tool to avoid earnestness; “Too Much Love” in particular is a self-lambast for the ages over Murphy’s then-hedonistic lifestyle substituting cocaine highs for real lasting memories.  Sound of Silver, as discussed, began to let that heart bleed a little more openly by alternating between the detached droll observer persona Murphy had cultivated on record and the more emotionally honest and open introspective version of himself that exists outside of it.  Even notice how that album’s opener, “Get Innocuous!” and its closer, “New York…” approach the same topic from those different viewpoints; the former an ironic motoric chant for a city now caught in a rat race, the latter a torch ballad for the days Murphy can’t get back.

All of which brings us, as it brought Murphy, to This is Happening, which turns 10 today.  The very loud ending of LCD Soundsystem.

This is Happening had been pitched as the final record by LCD from pretty much the second that Murphy went back into the studio to make it, even if it supposedly wasn’t until near the album’s completion that he decided this was going to be it.  That was the narrative going in, the thing that every single review of the time framed the record in.  As to why he would walk away right then, Murphy’s reasoning shifted with basically every single interview he gave.  He didn’t want to keep playing in a band once he turned 40, which occurred three months prior to Happening’s release; he wanted to do more production work; he wanted to dive back into running the DFA label; he was exhausted by the grind of being in a band; he believed that punk bands only have three good albums in them and, student of rock and roll that he is, he didn’t want to start sucking.  Years later, in the aforementioned Meet Me in the Bathroom, he all but admits that he just wanted to sell out Madison Square Garden in the face of promoters who didn’t think he could and figured that promoting it as LCD’s last show would guarantee that.  Maybe he just liked the rock and roll mythical ending of going out on top at the height of one’s powers too much to back out.

Whatever the reason may have been, that decision to bring things to an end, either consciously or unconsciously, causes a sense of finality to permeate every facet of This is Happening.  This is a record that feels like the ending of something even if you approach it without the slightest attention paid to that meta-narrative.  It’s evident right there in opener “Dance Yrself Clean.”  I’m not even talking lyrically, with Murphy waxing melancholy over a gathering of his friends for “the end of an era” whilst “everybody’s getting younger,” but structurally in the music.  Compare the builds across every major LCD opener.  “Edge” starting with a cacophonous drum fill which gets louder and louder before abruptly cutting out for the actual beat kicking the song off proper.  “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” from the self-titled bursts in immediately with punk snottiness.  “Get Innocuous!” crests over a hill as an “Edge”-reminiscent drum preset is quickly overtaken by burbling synth programming, glistening piano stabs and, finally, an actual physical drum kit.

But “Dance Yrself Clean?”  “Dance Yrself Clean” spends three minutes in a quiet insular shuffle, Murphy’s vocals buried at the bottom of a hole, the percussion so lightly tapped it’s like they’re being recorded in a building just one strike away from noise-complaint-related eviction, the centring bass stabs similarly soft.  And it all goes on for just long enough that maybe you start to think Murphy’s letting this anxiety get to him… before the harmonies converge skywards, a snare roll rattles off like a gunshot, the floor drops out from underneath and the track explodes into an utter party.  If “Losing My Edge” was the kind of ‘fuck it all’ release that came from a place of reckless impulsive jealousy, a man on the edge, then “Dance Yrself Clean” is the kind of ‘fuck it all’ release that comes from a place of celebratory contentment of knowing that this is the end so here comes one last party to bring it all home.  “All My Friends” raged against the end, “Dance” accepts its inevitability.

(Side bar: my first listen to “Dance Yrself Clean” I imagine was just like that of most folks reading this.  My introduction to LCD came in very early 2012 when my nascent time on the now-defunct music social media site This is My Jam turned me onto “Edge,” followed by going to Spotify and trying out Sound of Silver, one of my prior-mentioned lightning strike records for how immediately and totally it won me over to the point of obsession.  About a month later, I bought every single LCD album on CD despite having only heard Silver, “Edge” and the self-titled’s “Movement.”  So, This is Happening turns up, I slide the disc into my wheezing laptop, stick my earphones into the jack to listen and get lulled into that false sense of security by turning up the volume… before the drop causes me to jump out of my goddamned skin.  I didn’t turn it down, though, cos I was far too busy grooving on my bed to that explosion of joy.)

This is Happening feels like an end.  It has the confidence and catharsis of an end.  I doubt anyone who was fully prepared to hang it up would be willing to get so shamelessly blatant in their musical riffs/rips as Murphy does here.  “Somebody’s Calling Me” is literally just “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop.  “All I Want” steals the soaring Robert Fripp e-bow guitar work from Bowie’s “Heroes.”  “I Can Change” is “Love is a Stranger” by Eurythmics.  “Home” is Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” at a slightly faster tempo.  That’s the kind of biting a Murphy who performatively ragged on UNKLE for their obvious bites would’ve been far too ashamed of doing, but the Murphy of Happening freely cops to lifting Joy Division basslines so long as the songs are killer.  (And, boy, are the songs killer.)

Also befitting a planned ending, Happening calls back to LCD’s own past just as often as it does the past of rock as a whole, both musically and meta-textually, in an effort to close their own book definitively.  “Pow Pow” utilises the same stream-of-consciousness rant over a gradually changing groove as “Losing My Edge,” Murphy leapfrogging from neighbourhood consciousness to bragging about having a Black president to jokingly starting beef with nightlife critic Michael Musto (“you’re no Bruce Vilanch!”) like it’s the last song at an open mic and he’s just got some unstructured shit he needs to get off his chest.  (Or, in so many words, late-2010s Mark Kozelek except with a sense of humour.)  “Drunk Girls” is the album’s designated raucous punk rocker – following in the tradition of “Movement” from the self-titled and “Watch the Tapes” from Sound of Silver.  “You Wanted a Hit,” meanwhile, is a nine minute vent/sarcastic ‘sod off’ to EMI over the fact that Murphy and DFA were incapable of writing a hit song, something which should be absolutely insufferable yet is gotten away with totally due to being paired with a magnificent cresting groove bookended by luscious synth beds.

Detour for a second.  Back when LCD were on the come up in the early 2000s as one of the major figureheads of the New York City scene, Murphy’s status as an overlooked survivor of a spotlight whose time had perhaps passed him by wasn’t exclusively his alone.  From the ashes of the influential failed 90s indie rock act Jonathan Fire*Eater, plus the much lesser-known Recoys, was born The Walkmen, a band that would go on to become beloved cult heroes until their still-ongoing hiatus in 2014.  Even if you don’t know The Walkmen, though, you almost definitely know of “The Rat,” their one crossover success from 2003.  That was a song which was angry, dark, dramatic and wounded, a far cry from much of the NYC sound that saw sex and relationship turmoil through a detached cool.  But even though it was a song about a break-up and even though frontman and lyricist Hamilton Leithauser was only in his mid-20s when he recorded the song, the turn it takes on the bridge transcends the break-up subject matter and becomes something altogether more despairing and aged.

“When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw

Now I go out alone, if I go out at all.”

There’s a whole chapter in Meet Me in the Bathroom dedicated to that song and the book’s interviewees lining up to relate how much those lines in particular cut like a knife.  And I bring the song up because the sentiment of those lines feels like a strange bedfellow thesis statement for This is Happening.  It’s the album one makes when staring down the barrel of 40, all your friends about to scatter to the wind, the scene you spearheaded being overtaken by the new sound and a new generation… and that realisation gives you a sense of acceptance that it is time, rather than Leithauser’s frustrated despair.  That’s not to say that Murphy, patron saint of petty asshole grudges, was going to go out quietly – his mission with this last record, especially after Sound of Silver started cropping up on Best Albums of the 2000s lists, was to “fucking bury… all the bands that were bigger than [them]” – more that lyrically the aloof sardonic persona of past LCD bangers was finally outnumbered track-wise by the more earnest advisor of songs like “All My Friends.”  Even those above-it-all bangers like “Pow Pow” and “Drunk Girls” have flashes of legitimate empathetic insight – Murphy repeatedly observes on the former variations on the sentiment that “from this position, I totally get how the decision was reached,” whilst the latter has the absolutely killer couplet “drunk girls know that love is an astronaut, it comes back but it’s never the same.”

All of which brings us to “Home.”  Undeniably a sister to “Friends,” it’s the perfectly melancholic end to the story of LCD.  A song about that specific afterglow following an emotional all-timer of a memory, where the high of the world’s cares being briefly exhumed with great friends mixes with that self-awareness of it being all too brief and non-replicable.  There’s a joy in being in that moment, as the choir of Murphys that signalled the drop from “Dance Yrself Clean” return to form the chorus of this, and an anxious sinking feeling about the unknowability of whatever that next chapter may be.  So you try futilely to cling onto that moment for as long as is possible, “because you’re afraid of what you need,” in an effort to “forget a terrible year” whilst those closest to you are replaced by those who “never know what you’re talking about… and no-one opens up when you scream and shout.”  But Murphy and the music carry you through because it has to happen.  It has to end.  “Love and rock are fickle things and you know it.”  Those synths burble and circle with an inviting comfort.  “You might forget the sound of my voice, still you should not forget the things that we laughed about.”  The memories are their own currency and they keep you warm long after later life may have stripped you bare.  It’s a song filled with empathy from a man who has clearly gone through such a tear-down-rebuild cycle multiple times already, preparing his audience and younger peers for their own such experiences.

I find it rather fitting that Murphy specifically cited Bloc Party as one of the artists he wanted to “fucking bury” when making This is Happening because both this album and Silent Alarm are records I loved at the time of first listening but have grown to adore and truly relate to as I get older.  When I was 13 (for Silent Alarm) and 17 (for This is Happening), I fell for those records based on hooks and grooves; both were cool and energetic and just the right amount of vulnerable for the Me gradually coming out of the laddish Brit Rock hell-pit I was mainly in.  And I never stopped listening to those albums, either.  But, some time around the end of my time at university, the full force of those albums and their themes of decaying relationships and anxiety over aging – Silent Alarm being wisened well beyond its years, whilst This is Happening has lived those feelings several times over – suddenly bodied me completely.  I honestly could not tell you exactly when my favourite song on Happening went from “Dance Yrself Clean” to “Home,” but I can tell you that the lines “cuz you’re afraid of what you need… if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about” hit way, way harder now than they did eight years back.

This might be why I continue to remain non-plussed over the fact that This is Happening and the famous Madison Square Garden show did not turn out to be The End for LCD Soundsystem.  For one, as inferred, I didn’t get into them until after the break-up so this was something I came to with the story already mapped out and seemingly concluded, with the early 2016 reunion bringing an ‘OH SHIT, I MIGHT ACTUALLY GET TO SEE THEM LIVE!’ reaction of epic proportions.  (That desire has yet to actualise and I’m starting to think they may just forever remain my white whale.)  For two, the 2017 reunion record, american dream, is both a really fucking good record and, in its own way, a startlingly different beast to their prior discography.  It may be the first LCD album where you can’t pinpoint the specific song Murphy is stealing from for each track, but it also completes the evolution to full-on unashamed earnest sincerity that Murphy had been building towards throughout his recording career.  For perhaps the biggest example, “tonite” appears at first glance to be a moan by an old White guy against the state of modern pop music but, whilst he does get a few good barbs in, Murphy is instead trying to counteract the anxiety over a wasted youth that these songs can often instil in their target audience.  Not smugness but empathy from someone who’s been there.

“You hate the idea that you’re wasting your youth,

That you stood in the background until you got older,

But that’s all lies.”

And for three… even if This is Happening didn’t turn out to be the self-mythologised End, it’s still an excellent album about endings.  Not a perfect album – I’ve always felt that “Somebody’s Calling Me” is too much of a momentum killing dirge that rolls on for far too long – but an excellent one where almost every track comes at that theme from different angles both musically and lyrically.  Because, as the past four years have demonstrated, even if you strip away the mythology surrounding the band and the record-nerd musical lifts and the self-deprecating defence mechanisms, This is Happening is a personal album about getting old.  And the genius of James Murphy, the genius of LCD, is his ability to take those personal feelings and life experiences, since I don’t think many of us listening to the album are 40 year-old rock stars, and communicate them in a universal manner, even if that may not be immediately apparent until life comes at you fast.  LCD were never just about themselves.  They were about endings and the rebirths that such endings bring with them.  The things one realises in time.

“If you’re afraid of what you need, look around you.  You’re surrounded.  It won’t get any better.

And so, good night.”

Callum Petch woke with a start, and the dog and the girl are gone.

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