When ‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’ slipped into the world on December 24th, 2015, the rumours of an LCD Soundsystem return were rife and the internet fell over itself trying to get hot takes on Murphy’s un-retirement out into the world before clickbait took a day off for turkey. Confirmation of live performances soon followed and the inevitable consternation about tarnishing a legacy was unleashed. As the less prone to hyperventilation predicted, the unchecked emotional response has mutated with, firstly, fresh chances to witness the band’s joyous catalogue in the flesh and, secondly, talk of a new album. However, no amount of frenzied paragraphs would count for shit if the resultant record didn’t deliver.
Nearly two years later, ‘American Dream’ is upon us, atrocious cover and all. James Murphy sure knows how to sequence a record, even if he has allowed an unprecedented tenth song onto the tracklist this time. The progression from ‘Oh Baby’ to ‘Black Screen’ is nuanced and enveloping, a slowly unravelling thread that you don’t notice until it’s got too long to tuck aside. Initial listens highlight a lack of pace, and it’s definitely more about textures than bangers, but there is an inviting coherence about this scratching of the itch.
The moments that come closest to where Murphy has been before are actually the least interesting. ‘Other Voices’ is a barely concealed Talking Heads reboot, a squiffy synth line the first sign of deviation and a robotic spoken word section neatly shifting things up a gear towards its conclusion. It’s one for the flailing limbs, and pretty joyously executed, but there’s much more interesting material surrounding it. ‘I Used To’, for example, is a shuddering, bleepy electro Joy Division, pushing LCD Soundsystem to darker, fuzzier terrain. It takes time to unfurl fully, its not especially inviting layers slowly arraying themselves across the soundstage.
After ‘All I Want’ from 2010’s ‘This Is Happening’ affectionately plundered Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, it’s the ‘Scary Monsters’ era that propels ‘Change Yr Mind’. The howling Fripp guitar of tracks like ‘Fashion’ and ‘It’s No Game’ is aped with élan, while the lyrics feel like a more circumspect and less ironic take on ‘Losing My Edge’: “I’m not dangerous now, the way I used to be once. I’m just too old for it now. At least that seems to be true.” The artist to whom this track so brazenly owes a debt is just one of a number of losses to have impacted upon Murphy’s life since that last album, and the passing of time and mortality are all over the record’s lyrics.
The teaser tracks have neatly ticked a selection of boxes: ‘Call The Police’ is another slowly escalating, soaring riff-possessing, seven-minute stomper to add to the catalogue and ‘Tonite’ is a hip-thrusting delight, driven by lively synths and a borderline erotic bassline. The least immediate of the trio, the album’s title track, is perhaps the most effective primer for ‘American Dream’ as a whole. It is a hypnotically woozy soundscape, coming on like MGMT played at the wrong speed, shooting stars of melody cascading across the chorus. They’ve not attempted anything quite this delicate in the past and its composed wistfulness is one of the record’s emotional keystones.
‘Emotional Haircut’ is tonally at odds with its neighbours but is curiously fitting as the penultimate song. A regimented rock track, it does occasionally waft a little close to the world of U2’s latter-day attempts to convince themselves they’ve still got it, ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Get On Your Boots’ especially, but is saved by the brutally sparse verses. Despite such unflattering associations, it’s a perfect contrast with the starry-eyed release of ‘American Dream’ prior to it, and a strange wire wool palette cleanser for concluding track ‘Black Screen’. At twelve minutes in length, it is impossible to imagine that piece as anything but the closer. Think the second side of ‘Low’, but in the summer: warmer in both senses. The gently colliding synth motifs engineer a lulling looseness, like an infant trying to grab at bubbles on the breeze.
There remains, however, one track more remarkable even than the record’s enigmatic finale. As if to make amends for invoking gurning Noughties Bono elsewhere, his early 80s incarnation seems to hover over parts of the album’s nine-minute midpoint, ‘How Do You Sleep?’ After a long, tense build with judicious use of reverb, scratchy, ever-intensifying strings add a tension that takes time to be resolved. The truly immersive peaking synth stabs that then clamber all over the song almost force the vocals into the distance. There’s a redemptive hint when the beat emerges on the five-minute mark, but it’s the moment that Murphy unleashes a little falsetto midway through the track’s final third that truly releases the pressure.
LCD Soundsystem may well have disappointed fans who felt they had loved and lost, cherishing the potency of their grief, when they stepped out on the stage again. They may well have risked a legacy built on a triumvirate of largely wonderful albums by venturing back to the studio also. But, in returning to the project that best suits his sense of adventure, James Murphy has done nothing to tarnish what has gone before. ‘American Dream’ is a darker, more diverse record than its predecessors and a more human one too. In realising the difficulty of allowing himself to indulge in what he had chosen to end, Murphy has found himself driven to justify LCD Soundsystem’s rebooted existence more than ever before. It’s still imperfect, but even its flaws are worthy of note. The long goodbye is now followed by quite a lengthy return. Long may it last.
Words: Gareth James
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