If nothing else, the new LCD Soundsystem album proves that certain lessons can only be learned by studying a humongous record collection. Seven years after their last full-length release, James Murphy still takes scrupulous notes. After a staged hiatus and a period of earned inactivity, the formal facility evident on the new American Dream, out since September, is a pleasure. For this brand of listless dance-rock to sound so good confounds conventional attitudes about rock comebacks and reunion albums. Murphy still confirms every cliché about the constricting effects of self-consciousness on an artist, and that, too, is a comfort; it’s good to know he’s as endearingly awkward as ever.
Subjecting LCD Soundsystem to reasoned analysis feels counterproductive somehow — nobody will ever nail the band as ruthlessly as they did themselves, on their debut single in 2002. On “Losing My Edge,” an eight-minute monster dance track that builds marvelously from dinky unaccompanied drum machine to an explosive synthfunk climax, Murphy impersonates an aging hipster terrified and/or amused and/or infuriated that his taste is going out of style. LCD’s music has a frustrating way of anticipating and responding to criticism. Murphy’s singing and stuttering may indeed sound amateurish, stilted, but that’s the point: he plays the accidental frontman, a music nerd on stage, nervously struggling to enact rituals of stardom he’s observed so many times before. Said music nerd may indeed play dreary spot-the-influence games, designed to flatter rock critics congratulating themselves for discovering even such obvious references as the Kraftwerk hook in “Get Innocuous!” and the Bowie riff in “All I Want,” but that’s the point: LCD’s electronic digifunk template updates the classic college-rock taste profile for modern times, with cannily assembled synthbeats and mechanical functionalist irony. The whole concept of LCD Soundsystem as a band may indeed be limited, emotionally and formally, by obsessive historical positioning and pointlessly intricate self-referentiality, but that’s the point, too: the project’s impossibility works as a comment on the evolution of taste, the passing of time, and all the metalayers implicit in loving music as a fan and an artist. “LCD is a band about a band writing music about writing music,” Murphy said once, and he’s right. Fandom is the band’s subject. He’s always written songs that satirized various familiar hipsterish attitudes and phenomena (“North American Scum,” “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” “You Wanted a Hit”), and even his serious confessional songs are set, implicitly, against the backdrop of the New York indie scene. One might still wonder why these music nerds don’t have better taste, but hey now — that sounds like something a music nerd would say.
Since LCD Soundsystem already had too many influences, too retrospective an ethos, the extra layer of nostalgia intrinsic to a reunion album project spelled disaster, especially so soon after the band’s big, showy, overly conclusive four-hour farewell concert in Madison Square Garden and accompanying documentary. Oddly, American Dream is no more nostalgic than their previous albums. As inventive posthistorical patchwork, all four records purport to stand outside linear time, and if anything, the new one has fewer textual layers. They’ve demodernized their sound: behold a passably punkoid rock album, fiery in places, elsewhere clunky. Their signature electrobeats, so skinny and dinky, are augmented by spookier art-rock keyboards and jerkier noise guitar; Murphy’s been listening to Joy Division, Suicide, and Berlin-era Bowie. Since the bleached abrasion of this approach has sounded tired since the early ‘80s, for the clattery drums and snaky, sinuous buzz guitar on American Dream to electrify so fetchingly honors the band’s gift for arranging elements throughout space, their knack for balancing crisp keyboards against blurry guitar. That half the songs nonetheless sound like perfunctory exercises in postpunk facsimile, however, is hardly a surprise. “Other Voices” rides a murky funk groove, plunging through a whirlwind of deep rubbery bass, high keyboard latticework, and clickity clave, compounded by Murphy’s spoken sneer and a sublimely affectless rapped interlude by keyboardist Nancy Whang. “Oh Baby,”, a felt romantic lament that sounds simultaneously epic and small, sways woozily as the band constructs a net of synthesizer hooks, including one particularly playful glassy lick that punctuates certain lines for emphasis. Elsewhere they thud, gauchely. “How Do You Sleep?,” a vitriolic hatesong against some former friend, plods endlessly over menacing congas and echoey bass; eventually a stronger beat kicks in, but by then Murphy has blown his voice yelling tunelessly about cocaine. The lighter, prettier “Call the Police” attempts to conjure soaring positive energy, with loopy fuzzy guitar passages that recall Robert Fripp soloing on Brian Eno’s Another Green World, but at seven minutes the anthem dissipates.
Murphy’s approach invites a multitude of comparisons, but Eno is particularly relevant. As a producer, Eno’s touch is unmistakable — David Bowie’s Low, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and U2’s Zooropa all share with Eno’s solo albums a certain spare, angular quirkiness, reliant on expanses of blank space, immersion in technology, wistfulness mitigated by cheer. It’s this aesthetic that LCD Soundsystem aims to inhabit on American Dream. The constantly strummed rhythm guitar and spiky keyboard octave jumps in “I Used To”; the chickenscratch solos on “Change Yr Mind”; the bleary guitar frizz that pervades the whole record — such amusing facsimile! I associate this sound with abrupt career shifts and attempts at cathartic renewal — Bowie moving from LA to Berlin, purging the drugs from his system, and embracing cold electronic European modernism; U2 selling their guitars and buying turntables. I suspect Murphy has a similar association in mind, for much like Low minus Bowie’s sense of play, the sober, clear-eyed, levelheaded American Dream serves to cleanse. Fusing harmonic ideas they learned from Eno with the band’s own increased sense of scale, it’s LCD’s coldest, harshest album, immersed in postpunk ideals of aural distortion and sharp bursts of sound. Whether inspired by the present political situation, or by the urge to play up their seriousness coming out of retirement, or simply from ennui, they’ve deliberately kept and accentuated their pained, earnest, confessional elements while avoiding satire, spoken declamatory comedy, and automated drum-machine functionalism. The album strains for gravitas. “Call the Police” and “American Dream” are but two of many forlorn ballads about age and cultural decline. Caught in the hissing electric lurch, they sound less detached and less meta; American Dream includes fewer distancing devices, fewer wry admissions of referentiality, than any other LCD Soundsystem album. It very nearly simulates direct expression.
One doesn’t play LCD Soundsystem albums for direct expression, of course, nor for gravitas. One plays LCD Soundsystem albums for their marvelous innovations in creative anachronism. I don’t fault artists for empty formalist constructions — Carly Rae Jepsen and Red Velvet fascinate for similar reasons. American Dream will please those in the market for chewy dance-rock beats and postpunk grooves, likewise those entertained by bricolage. Of such mild delights is a discography made.