The time has come, the time has come, the time has come today. LCD Soundsystem have finally returned from a mysterious five-year break-up they never quite explained, despite making a high-profile film documentary ostensibly designed for just that purpose. As rock & roll breakups go, it was about as believable as Cher’s sixth farewell tour. But wherever these guys have been, what matters is that that they’ve returned at top strength. James Murphy and his wrecking crew of New York punk-disco marauders don’t waste a moment on the superb American Dream – it’s a relentless, expansive, maddeningly funny set of songs asking how a lifetime of good intentions and hard work can blow up into such a mess. In the America of 2017, this isn’t just a question for middle-aged rock stars.
LCD Soundsystem are gambling with history by making any new music at all, since they signed off after three of this century’s finest albums: the hits-packed 2005 debut, their grandiose 2007 zenith Sound of Silver, the masterful 2010 farewell This Is Happening. That’s a flawless discography anyone would have been tempted to leave alone. But American Dream is on the same level. James Murphy digs deep into the wreckage he sees all around him, both emotional and political, even if his message to the country is the same as his message to the mirror: “You just suck at self-preservation.”
Murphy doesn’t go for a “Drunk Girls” or “North American Scum” here – no lightweight novelty hit to bait the hook. (Since he’s left those songs off the reunion tour setlists, maybe he’s just burned out on novelties.) Instead, American Dream is 10 complex tracks in an old-school CD-sized seventy-minute electro-funk rush, stubbornly insisting that you put in time to absorb all the twists and turns. It moves from the hushed echo-chamber crooning of “Oh Baby” to the extremely 1985 drum flomps of “I Used To.” “Other Voices” squats in Talking Heads’ loft space, with Adrian Belew-inspired guitar squiggles and a rap from keyboard wizard Nancy Whang, scoffing, “This is what’s happening and it’s freaking you out/I’ve heard it, heard it and it sounds like the Nineties.”
The heart of American Dream is the four-song groove that builds from “How Do You Sleep?” to “Tonite” to the two songs already released as a single (and played on SNL) this spring, “Call the Police” and “American Dream.” These aren’t just the four best tracks on the album – they flow together as a 28-minute suite on the terrors of adulthood in dangerous times. “How Do You Sleep?” is Murphy belting in Bono mode about some kind of personal betrayal (“You warned me about the cocaine/Then dove straight in”). “Tonite” is a deceptively perky disco satire, ripping “these bullying children of the fabulous/Raffling off limited-edition shoes.” But it also faces up to mortality, with Murphy interrupting himself mid-rant to say, “Oh good gracious, I sound like my mom.” “Call the Police” comes on like Eno-era Bowie with motorik beats and guitar clang, as he tries to diagnose the disease he sees all over our culture: “It moves like a virus and enters our skin/The first sign divides us, the second is moving to Berlin.”
“American Dream” sums it up in a comic yet bizarrely poignant doo-wop Kraftwerk ballad, as Murphy testifies about how growing older can feel like a constant drug haze, running away from relationships but running on empty. The album signs off with the 12-minute electro dirge “Black Screen,” a disarmingly vulnerable lament of a middle-aged man reading over his past emails and trying to remember his friends, his career, his whole life, as anything more than blips on a glowing screen. It ends with a quaint old-fashioned piano solo – a humorous touch that also feels strangely poignant.
Unlike some other rockers of a certain age we could mention, Murphy never sounds like a crank hung up on his lost youth – maybe because he was already well into his thirties by the time he got LCD Soundsystem off the ground. Fifteen years ago, in the classic debut 12-inch “Losing My Edge,” Murphy pretty much single-handedly invented the genre of the Gen X rant against the kids who weren’t “millennials” yet, just younger and hotter and smarter and nicer and the hell with those guys. He mocked the art-school Brooklynites full of “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties.” (“Losing My Edge” sounds even funnier and weirder now that we’re in the middle of a wave of borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered early 2000s.) All over American Dream, he sounds surprised he has any edge left to lose. At one point in “Tonite,” he asks a polite small-talk question: “And what’s it you do again?” He delivers the reply through a haze of distortion: “Oh, I’m a reminder, a hobbled veteran of the disc shop inquisition …with my own faint air of middle-aged ramblings.”
on American Dream, he sees everyone around him – even the youngest
and freshest faces in the audience – feeling that same bewildered sense of fear
and confusion. Yet there’s an open-hearted compassion in the turmoil of these
tunes, and in the teamwork of a band that hasn’t gotten any less ferocious
during the downtime. On American Dream, even the most exuberantly
upbeat grooves are loaded with dread and confusion. But that’s exactly why they
hit home right now.