album review for the skinny
The first thing James Murphy ever did as LCD Soundsystem frontman was confess to a serious music addiction. Losing My Edge, his 2002 debut single, was an acutely observed and very funny monologue about the one-upmanship of music fandom, expertly name-dropping bands in a way destined to endear himself to music geeks, bloggers and critics. "He's one of us!" we thought. "He knows who Pere Ubu are too!"
So when his self-titled debut album eventually dropped in 2005, it was easy to look past the myriad obvious influences – The Fall, New Order, Can, David Byrne, Suicide, funky Beck – because he'd already declared his deference to elder musical heroes in that first single. And there was more: the very first thing he sang on the debut LP was "Daft Punk is playing at my house", boasted like a connected fan rather than as a musical peer. By bridging the gap between fan and artist, James Murphy earned our empathy and the benefit of any of our doubts. By the time of the second album, Sound of Silver (2007), LCD had developed their own characteristic style, and added a whole new dimension which had been missing from the debut: love. We knew he was a party guy, and we knew he was occasionally a balladeer, but previously his slow songs had been inward-looking; in the core of Sound of Silver, Someone Great and All My Friends, Murphy allowed himself 15 minutes to be sincere about others who were important to him. He wasn't schmaltzy, he just explained from within; and it didn't ruin the mood because both songs retained a propulsive motion that the next song was able to pick up again from. Having quickly mastered motion, he'd now mastered emotion too, and he meshed the two so convincingly on Sound of Silver that his musical inspirations became irrelevant.
At the risk of cliche, Sound of Silver showed a maturity Murphy had previously lacked, or perhaps been scared to show. All this time one of his main concerns has been aging, about gradually feeling like he was getting too old to party. Now forty years old, we can't be ironic about it: the kids are coming up from behind, and James Murphy just might be losing his edge.
There are four Sound of Silver-worthy songs on third album This Is Happening, which is a pretty good ratio considering that high standard. Yet, the flaws of This Is Happening suggest a regression back to the naivety of the debut self-titled album. The central inspiration here is David Bowie: four of the nine songs could be traced closely to Bowie's late-70s Berlin period when he worked extensively with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop; another song is very similar to Iggy's Nightclubbing (written and produced by Bowie), and there's still more Eno, Byrne and Can references. Even the cover is like that of Lodger, Bowie's final Berlin album. But Murphy is no longer just a talented fan with great taste. He crossed that bridge long ago.
The best segment of This Is Happening is a stretch of twenty minutes or so in the first half which features three consecutive keepers. One Touch builds in bizarrely with sharp silver scratches and wet slapping synths, but it really takes off in the chorus when Murphy's automatonic vocal is counteracted by a childlike yell from keyboardist Nancy Whang: rough noise and fluid bass, the girl and the robot all complementing each other. Then it's All I Want, which initially prompts a cringe because of its e-bowed guitar line that's instantly recognisable from Bowie's Heroes. It's the backbone of the entire song and, as Heroes is such a universally known and loved song, it feels kinda cheap, especially when Murphy's vocal melody hits a corresponding "Heroes" note. Nevertheless, the way All I Want progresses with neon-bright keyboard flashes towards Murphy's pleading climax makes its second half irresistible. Finally in this stretch is the piston-disco of I Can Change, a sweetly heartfelt offer to compromise sung gracefully over what sounds like an extended mix of something from Low's Side A.
The closing track, Home, is another success, combining cowbell and mobile phone interference for percussion, and building into a celebratory groove supporting Murphy's David Byrne-like vocals.
Unfortunately, between that ecstatic twenty minute spell and the triumphant finale are three of Murphy's weakest songs yet. Hit is a nine-minute-long grumble about label pressure for a hit song, which definitely won't be a hit itself because it's intentionally flat and tuneless. It's just petulant: the way to react to undue influence is to ignore it, not to propel yourself in the opposite direction. Pow Pow isn't much better: it's a Losing My Edge-style rambling monologue over a rolling groove, except without any of the the wit, and with an inane chorus of "pow, pow pow pow pow, pow pow pow pow" yelled repeatedly. Then there's Somebody's Calling Me, a heavily sedated version of Iggy Pop' Nightclubbing that drearily plods along under the occasional brightly flaring drone.
These songs give credence to the notion that Murphy is doing the right thing by hanging up his LCD Soundsystem boots with this album. That LCD would resort to the third-album cliche of whinging about the music industry, for almost ten minutes, would've seemed so unlikely to early fans: he made jokes about Captain Beefheart, he surely must know about these well-trodden pitfalls? And This Is Happening's reliance on familiar sources of inspiration is not what you expect from an established artist. But, though Murphy crossed that bridge long ago, he remains a talented man with great taste, and that results in a clutch of thrilling tracks. Like the album that inspired its cover, This Is Happening is a fine – if flawed – end to a largely magnificent trilogy.