Tuesday, 25 May 2010

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

It is hard to imagine life without LCD Soundsystem. If rumours are to be believed This Is Happening is the third and last album from the project led by US producer James Murphy. No doubt he will go on to other things, and continue to make music, but not in this guise. Talk about quitting while you are ahead. The band’s eponymous debut, with all its faults, is a huge exploration into modern dance-punk: exciting, unpredictable and compelling. Perversely the album’s best moments are not the more mellow echoes of what was to follow but instead the spontaneous frantic ‘straight-from-the-mind-of-a-genius’ ‘lay-it-down-in-one-take’ masterpieces: Movement, On Repeat, the mighty Losing My Edge and the epic takes of Yeah (it is debatable if these last two are actually part of the album as it is presented as a two disc pack - a mere technicality…). This is followed by the more sedate and coherent Sound of Silver, equally brilliant yet more focused and ‘planned’ record. So it comes as no surprise that This Is Happening follows perfectly to create one of the most impressive trilogies of any band in the last fifty years.

This Is Happening is one hour and nine songs of sublime storytelling. Opener Dance Yrself Clean is a very understated and sedate beginning mainly thanks to a brilliant use of volume coupled with the fact that Murphy‘s voice was ‘completely blown out‘ when the band recorded the song; the final result is a ’steroid’ enhanced Murphy who is both thoughtful and reflective, a distant voice musing about the future and the past with the first signs that the end is nigh: ‘Present company, excluded every time…present company, the best that you can find’ and ‘we’ve got to bring our results, I want to play ‘til the time comes, but there’s a string of divorces; you go and throw your little hands up…’. Things kick off at the three minute point with a thumping buzzing full-volume keyboard riff to add an injection of madness to the song which remains levelled and controlled. Murphy descends into howling (presumably the drugs kick in at this point) ‘it’s your show’ before the last act. The line ‘everybody’s getting younger, it’s the end of an era it’s true’ has a definite air of finality about it but it’s the closing shot, barely audible over stoic handclaps: ‘we should try a little harder, in the tedious march of the few…’ that stings. This was the last song recorded for the album and it feels like it. But the real story is yet to unfold…

So with the scene set, the album dives into the shortest and most inane song Drunk Girls. This is a social and political rant with just a loan or two from Blur (not just Girls & Boys but the melody from Tracy Jacks is in there somewhere…). Great lyrics aside, the message of late night carefree club life is lost within a dull repetitive delivery. Without this the album would be as close to perfect as it can get. That is how much this moment of poor judgement lets it down. Moving on, the album just gets better and better. One Touch is a whirling old-school dance track led by Bowie-esque Murphy and the wonderful Nancy Whang providing ‘American Scum’ shout outs. More organic but equally Bowie-esque is the wonderful All I Want, blending soaring guitars with some of the best vocals Murphy has cut to record - imperfect and natural, full of nonchalance and emotion. A great keyboard solo breaks into the three minute point. If anything this is layered a bit thick into the last two minutes as it all threatens to go off the rails. But it stays on even into the shambles of a conclusion.

I Can Change is another great song. You would be forgiven for thinking that your iPod had suddenly skipped to your 80s electronica play list and this was a long lost Yazoo or early Depeche Mode track. The love song of self-doubt moves from the head-over-heels hopelessness of ‘never change’ to the ultimate and inevitable ‘I can change’. The line ‘love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry…and this coming from me’ is sublime ironic writing given what is to come. You Wanted A Hit is the nine minute (not quite) centre piece for an album that is trying to reconcile the past with the future, to justify lack of success while at the same time realising that doing your best is all you can ask for. A shimmering intro is slowly taken over by a thumping drum track that feels a lot less than three minutes before Murphy starts. He opens with ‘You wanted a hit, but maybe we don’t do hits. I try and try, it ends up feeling kind of wrong’. The key line here is ‘And so you wanted a hit, well this is how we do hits. You wanted a hit. But this is not what we do…You wanted it real, but can you tell me what’s real?’. If one moment of the album sums up the situation it is this. Murphy is a delicious combination of bitter and confident, like a burden has been lifted and in an attempt to sum up the band’s lack of commercial success they are both ironic and funny (‘Yeah, 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’). Brilliant.

The last trio of songs on This Is Happening continue the brilliance. Pow Pow could be the reworked remnant of something from the first album. Murphy is in ‘talky’ mode, part planned, part improvised charm. All this set to tribal drums and looped beats, entrancing and engaging into the last psychedelic mesmerising two minutes. Somebody’s Calling Me is equally compelling and haunting with plodding vocals fused with tuneless cold synths. It feels like the antithesis of On Repeat - drawing you in to an odd shapeless world. Closing with the appropriately upbeat and feel-good Talking Heads inspired Home, This Is Happening refuses to stumble across the finish line. Instead it races into a new world of sounds and textures with considerable carefree style.

There is a lot to be said for quitting while you are ahead. If this isn’t LCD Soundsystem’s swan song, it sure feels like it. This is self-awareness without self-indulgence. The problem is this is not hopeless, messy and pointless; it is the sound of a band at the height of its power, analogous to Nirvana’s In Utero. But maybe that’s the point - the thought of continuing is stifling and suffocating for James Murphy. The result of this anxiety is that This Is Happening is wonderfully liberated, comfortable in its acceptance of a predetermined and inevitable fate and hopeful of an unknown yet exciting future.
-- CS

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