The greatest tragedy, it would seem, is to waste your youth. To fail to live with urgency, to stay home, sober, alone. I, in the middle of my youth, feel the tug of expectation acutely, the push to model my life on the pictures of youth I see in movies and hear in pop songs.
James Murphy, whose youth was behind him before he ever made music with a band called LCD Soundsystem, calls those pictures of youth what they are: lies. But lies he still finds himself falling for.
Time — and its inextricable relationship with age — is at the heart of american dream, LCD Soundsystem’s first album since their calculated 2011 “break-up.” Murphy, now 47, wades through the debris of middle age — lost love, dead friends, unactualized dreams—on an album that is at once textbook LCD Soundsystem and something completely new.
Both LCD Soundsystem and the world they make music in are different beasts than they were when the band bid us all farewell for the first time in 2011. And to those who are caught up in the betrayal of a band they love getting back together I say: So what? I’d want to hear the complaints if this album felt like a rushed post-script. But it doesn’t. With american dream, LCD Soundsystem doesn’t want to rewrite their past, but rather make sense of their present. Sometimes, the only way you can make sense of a world on the brink of collapse is to make art about it. Sometimes, that means getting the band back together.
Seven years later, we’re still dealing with the manic, meticulous brain of the singular, ineffable James Murphy. “tonite,” the album’s third single and centerpiece, is sonically the most reminiscent of the band’s earlier albums. With its synthy, repetitive beat and cheeky yet earnest lyrics, it’s peak LCD Soundsystem. But, like the rest of the album, it’s more vulnerable and darker than we’ve ever seen them.
Ever anxious, Murphy is increasingly self-aware. As much as he laments the modern world, he calls himself out for that — “Oh good gracious / I sound like my mom,” he quips. And, who exactly is he addressing when he sings: “You’re missing a party that you’ll never get over / You hate the idea that you’re wasting your youth”? It feels like he’s talking to me and also to himself.
Because, like its creators, american dream refuses to be any one thing. It’s art rock and disco-punk and electronica. It’s post-swan song. It’s a rebirth that’s obsessed with death, a beginning comprised of a series of endings.
Murphy is, as he describes himself in the song, “the hobbled veteran of the disk shop inquisition.” He’s a reminder of some bygone era when manic music fandom took up physical space. On the album, he clings to the vestiges of something else millennials allegedly killed. But he doesn’t seem to blame the younger generation for their murderous evolution of the industry.
That being said, american dream has a weight to it that other LCD Soundsystem albums don’t. The cultural and musical references feel like eulogies for a time and a sound that doesn’t quite exist anymore. And Murphy’s major sonic influences — Lou Reed, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen — have all died in the years since the band’s last album. On the album’s final track, “black screen,” Murphy eulogizes Bowie and laments his own inability to pinpoint his late friend’s location in the cosmos, the “black screen” of outer space.
Bowie is all over american dream. Murphy creates an otherworldly sound similar to that of the Berlin Trilogy. “oh baby,” the album’s opener, floats dreamy and hazy, signaling from its first notes that american dream inhabits a space far above the earth. And for the most part, the album stays there, hovering high in the sky, until the long comedown at the end of “black screen” floats it back down.
With its pared down poetry and repetitive word choice, “oh baby” is lyrically classic James Murphy. But it starts the album in a more melancholic place than we’ve seen him really go before. While american dream rides an emotional rollercoaster from anger to grief to brief moments of joy, melancholy is the real emotional backbone. There’s sadness in the sting of lines like: “I must admit: I miss the laughing / But not so much you” from “how do you sleep?” a song about Murphy’s falling out with former friend and business partner.
And, halfway through 2017, what is more bitterly melancholic than the American Dream? And specifically the one Murphy paints on the album’s titular track. Murphy is old, a little tired, but still performing a type of youth — rooted in the disappearing culture of the early 2000’s New York rock scene in which the band was born and nurtured. Murphy pokes fun at failed revolutions, his own age and the unbearable weight of the modern world. It’s heavy, but buoyed by a sparkling synthy sound and airy vocals, and the faintest spark of hope.
Such goes much of the album. Darkness sounds like light and sadness sounds like something akin to joy. It's Murphy doing what he does best — ten or twelve things at once — both in production (his credits on the album include producer, writer, vocals, guitar, synth, bass guitar, drums, bongos, glockenspiel and mixing to name a few) and substance.
And it’s this ability to do so much with so little that makes Murphy’s music so powerful. His music makes me feel known, seen, understood, despite our circumstantial differences. I feel old sometimes, although I know I am not — too old to be young and too young to be old. I feel confused and left out and left behind by a world that seems to be spiraling out of control. american dream transcends delineations of age or race or gender because what it gets at, above all else, is the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re all just stuck moving forward in time.