On LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, James Murphy Rediscovers His Purpose

LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for FYF

As a child I used to have vivid nightmares about the Christian apocalypse and, as a result, I swear I developed a tiny shock of gray hair to match my pointed sense of living on borrowed time. The grays disappeared in my teens, and stayed gone throughout my 20s, but when they began creeping back into my facial hair a few years ago, I knew they were playing for keeps. Life’s been Logan’s Run ever since; I’m racing through everything I need to say, every word I need to read, and every band I need to see. But I still can’t shake the sense that there aren’t enough hours in a day to suit my ambitions.

Rewatching the 2011 LCD Soundsystem farewell concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits this week, I heard bandleader James Murphy offer up a version of the same thinking as a reason why he and the band decided to hang it up for good that year: “Every time I go on tour I get a new gray,” Murphy told rock writer Chuck Klosterman in a lengthy interview in a restaurant. “I’m getting gray hairs on my face, but what the fuck is going on inside?” He worried that he would cruise through his 40s as quickly as he did his 30s, that he was doing horrible things to his body in keeping up a rock star’s schedule, and dove out of the cycle to look after quieter pursuits like making wine and coffee, producing other bands, scoring films, and introducing musicality to the bells and alarms of the New York City subway system.

Murphy’s stated fear about LCD being overdue for a flop after three sterling studio albums cracks on this week’s American Dream, the band’s first full-length since 2010’s This Is Happening. It’s a fine collection of songs and a careful recalibration of the band’s mix of dance-music swing and rock-and- roll musculature, not at all unlike Bowie’s late-’70s shift from the body-forward funk of Young Americans and Station to Station toward the icy synth landscapes of Low, at least in tone and texture. From the plodding drums and “rock transmissions” of “i used to” and the Robert Fripp–indebted guitar scratches of “change yr mind” through the prom-night slow waltz of the title track, American Dream nudges LCD Soundsystem even further into role of a straight-up rock band than This Is Happening nuggets “You Wanted a Hit” and “All I Want” did. The songs play at conventional pop structures, but electronic atmospherics tug at the speed of the flow between verse and chorus.

Singer-keyboard player Nancy Whang, drummer Pat Mahoney, synth whiz Gavin Russom, and Hot Chip multi-instrumentalist Al Doyle are skilled and studious enough to give the material a cool balance between familiar sounds and alien textures. This is still a project that derives its power from crisp, strong drums and polyrhythmic grooves, but the pacing is more relaxed than the punk-funk workouts of albums past. An eight-minute LCD epic used to be a slow climb toward a moment of sweat-flecked dance-floor euphoria — see “Yeah,” “Us vs. Them,” or “Dance Yrself Clean” — but American Dream tends to use length to let the arrangements breathe between missives from the group’s front man. This readjustment makes for what is ultimately the longest LCD Soundsystem album on record — not counting the deluxe edition of the 2005 self-titled debut — but the songwriting feels pointed even when the structure of a song gets loose.

It’s tempting to call American Dream the LCD Soundsystem album about getting old, but this is a band that was already “losing its edge” in 2002. It’s better to call it the one where Murphy, self-described “hobbled veteran of the disc shop inquisition,” tries to lead his flock out of a churning hunger for youthful cool into a more self-satisfied headspace. It’s haughty business, and Murphy sometimes sounds like a disgruntled stand-up comic warning what happens when you chase the nightlife through to its logical conclusion. “You’re still a pushover for passionate people,” “other voices” snarks, “and you’re just a baby now.” “You hate the idea that you’re missing your youth,” “tonite” intones, “that you stood in the background until you got older, but that’s all lies.”

These are sentiments you can only arrive at when you crash land at your dream job well into your 30s, after spending years piecing together a standard of work that precedes you, rather than running ragged keeping up a reputation for being on site every time something cool happens. (“I was there!”) American Dream is smart record-collector rock, the work of a unit having fun mixing and matching whatever Talking Heads, King Crimson, Can, and synth-pop vibes it pleases. It’s a cycle about making every minute of each day count and letting go of anything in your life that impedes growth. James Murphy had to let go of the notion that he was meant for any professional pursuit outside of leading this band, and now he wants the rest of us to be just as dogged and driven in getting to our dreams.

On American Dream, James Murphy Rediscovers His Purpose