“You wanted a hit,” sings James Murphy on the song of the same name, “but maybe we don’t make hits.” Of course this is to a certain extent a lie. As front man, songwriter, and producer of LCD Soundsystem, Murphy hasn’t ever topped the Billboard charts, but over the past decade he’s released quite a bit of music that’s been massive outside the mainstream. The 2002 single “Losing My Edge” and the 2007 full-length Sound of Silver brought his band to the top of the underground-music pile, earning it a spot on a major label as a prestige act—a rare prize in a business that’s increasingly frantic about its bottom line—and the clout to record the new This Is Happening (DFA/Capitol) in an LA mansion owned by Rick Rubin.
Murphy can kick out catchy tunes when he’s in the mood, but his major artistic achievement has been to bridge the worlds of indie rock and dance music. It’s hard to see that as a big deal now that the landscape is littered with electronics-heavy indie buzz bands and dance-floor remixes of indie-pop songs, but a decade ago, when Murphy was first building his reputation as a producer, the divide between the two cultures was vast. His single biggest contribution to the current detente was his work with the Rapture, a San Diego hardcore outfit that moved to New York and ended up under the wing of the DFA label, cofounded by Murphy, who was also its in-house producer. He helped them reinvent themselves as a full-fledged dance band with a streak of punk, as opposed to a noisy punk band with a taste for Gang of Four, and their sessions with him were a master’s course in the history of club music. The relationship between Murphy and the Rapture eventually soured, but not till after it had produced one of the great singles of the past decade, 2002’s “House of Jealous Lovers.” Built on a foundation of house music and the avant-garde postdisco of New York groups like Liquid Liquid and ESG, it got indie rockers onto the dance floor and give club kids a visceral alternative to house remixes of R & B tunes.
While “House of Jealous Lovers” can be seen as an attempt to inject the rhythms (and some of the decadence) of dance music into underground guitar rock, the LCD Soundsystem catalog works the other way: dance music has long been maligned as emotionless, but Murphy seems to be trying to animate it with the attitude and outlook of indie rock and punk. Dance music is made to inspire dancing, and such is its devotion to that end that it rarely concerns itself with expressing anything more than a general mood. Since the passing of disco, live human vocals and live musicians—both of which LCD Soundsystem uses consistently—have become a rarity, replaced by samples, drum machines, and MIDI keyboards. Part of the goal of this transformation was to make the music sound robotic and invincible. The over-the-top dynamics of acid house and techno, the dominant sounds of the ravey 90s, were good at intensifying an ecstasy high but lousy at conveying complexity and nuance.
Complexity and nuance is what This Is Happening is all about. The lead single, “Drunk Girls,” plays it big, dumb, and fun—a la “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”—but the rest of the record is harder to pin down. (Not that it’s easy to pin down a song with lyrics as ambiguous as “Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut / It comes back but it’s never the same.”) A lot of the songs are intriguingly moody in a way that’s reminiscent of Sound of Silver standout “All My Friends,” which combines the sobering lucidity of a meditation on aging with the fragile beauty of watching the sun rise after a night out partying. This Is Happening opens with “Dance Yrself Clean,” where Murphy sounds defeated over a sparse beat and a two-note organ figure, but just past the three-minute mark the song explodes into synth-heavy, triumphant catharsis. “Pow Pow” uses driving percussion, a thumping bass line, and almost amelodic squiggles of guitar and keyboard to establish a claustrophobic groove, which Murphy pairs with low-grade aggression that doesn’t seem to have a clear target—nightlife personalities and foreigners who don’t understand what it’s like to be American might be involved, but the lyrical references to them could also be metaphor or misdirection.
Murphy seems to thrive on ambiguity, and his taste for long songs gives him a lot of time to cultivate it. The traditional three-minute pop tune, a structure inherited from the age of 45s, is good for getting across a single emotional message, but LCD songs feel more like 12-inch singles—a format friendly to extended remixes, disco edits, and dubs. “Drunk Girls” is the only track on This Is Happening that’s under five minutes, and the majority of the nine cuts clock in at more than seven and a half. Murphy uses the repetition built into these generous structures to tease apart emotions and let them unfold and evolve. Lyrically “Dance Yrself Clean” dissects a certain very specific but hard-to-describe kind of bummed-out feeling: it begins as one side of a conversation about disillusionment with friends, turns into a broad examination of romantic entanglements, detours into a bit about the nature of aging (shades of “All My Friends”), and ends as something like a statement of purpose, suggesting that we can shed all of these concerns with the right kind of music as our guide. Murphy’s music—which combines hypnotic repetition and addictive melody on one hand, sympathetic lyrics and verbal puzzles on the other—makes it easy to shut out the rest of the world and immerse yourself in the one he’s made for you.