James Murphy, the disco-punk auteur who records as LCD Soundsystem, has become a star by doing the seemingly impossible: making his midlife crisis danceable. Early on This Is Happening, LCD’s third album, Murphy laments, “Every night’s a different story/It’s a 30-car pileup with you/Everybody’s getting younger/It’s the end of an era — it’s true.” That song, “Dance Yrself Clean,” is Murphy in a nutshell: It’s funk for neurotics, a worrywart’s litany set to a stomping beat.
Murphy emerged at the turn of the last decade as a producer of underground gems like the Rapture’s cowbell-laden floor-shaker “House of Jealous Lovers.” His crisp productions sent indie-rock wallflowers stampeding for the dance floor — and made disco punk the new It sound of urban bohemia.
As a frontman, Murphy managed to turn his disadvantages into his muse — to write about aging, anxiety and thirtysomething schlub-dom through the druggy haze of a Brooklyn loft party at 4 a.m. His terrific debut single, 2002’s “Losing My Edge,” found Murphy fretting hilariously about getting out-cooled by a new generation of hipsters. Murphy’s breakthrough album, 2007’s Sound of Silver, set complaints about aging, gentrification and loneliness to some of the catchiest and most electrifying music of the 2000s.
On This Is Happening, Murphy, now 40, remains a hipster, often expressing his emotions through quips, asides and allusions. Murphy has called the lead single, “Drunk Girls,” “dumb,” and he plays it like a frat-rock parody, yelping jokey aphorisms (“Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut/It comes back but it’s never the same”) amid a boozy shout-along chorus and clattering percussion.
But Happening also includes Murphy’s most earnest, lovelorn songs. In “I Can Change,” he pleads, “I can change — if it helps you fall in love.” “All I Want,” the album’s centerpiece, is a romantic postmortem with echoes of Bowie’s “Heroes” and some seriously woebegone lyrics: “Wake with a start, and the dog and the girl are gone/So you pack up your things and head into the lame unknown,” Murphy sings.
Murphy mixes the organic and the synthetic, rock and electro, loud guitars and louder beats. Like any good dance producer, he excels at the art of tension and release. “Dance Yrself Clean” begins as a two-chord vamp, with a bass tolling over pattering percussion and a hurdy-gurdy organ line, before it erupts into fuzzy synth pop. The songs unfold gradually, adding layers and nuance; the album’s nine tracks average seven-plus minutes each.
The long songs reveal Murphy’s bottom-line agenda: He’s still a dance guy at heart, and he knows it’s his job to ignite parties and clubs. But he approaches dance music more like a folkie singer-songwriter than a DJ, as a vehicle for storytelling and confession. In Murphy’s world, dancing isn’t really about transcendence, or letting loose — try as you might to “dance yrself clean,” your crises, midlife and otherwise, follow you onto the floor. So crank up the music, and move your body, at 120 beats per minute or so, into the lame unknown.