This is Happening
By Mark Abraham | 19 May 2010
I’m going to poke fun at Pitchfork just a bit, but only because their opinion on LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening is probably the standard by which all other opinions of the album will be judged. I’m not even sure, given the endless Pitchfork Hearts LCD Soundsystem publicity blitz we’ve been subjected to so far this year, that it’s possible to have an opinion about This that doesn’t necessarily confirm or deny their 9.2 rating that suggests LCD Soundsystem is more or less exactly as good as James Murphy has always been, which is 0.8 away from being perfect. But since they’ve now slapped an identical rating on both the second and third LCD Soundsystem LPs let me try to explain my reasoning. Think about it: we learned today that in Pitchfork’s view, This and Sound of Silver (2007) are both apparently almost as good as Exile on Main Street (1972), but the reason This is explained to be that good is little more than hand waving that takes the form of repeated hints that Murphy is essentially our generation’s David Bowie. Which…okay, but you’ll have to forgive me for thinking this argument is an attempt to solve the difference between apples and oranges by saying, “oranges are just like apples and remember when apples were cool?” It’s not like I think David Bowie is some sacred cow; I just don’t get the comparison, starting with the fact that I can tell you the difference between Hunky Dory (1971) and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) and the other nine albums (!) Bowie released between 1971 and 1980 but I can only really tell you what’s consistent between LCD Soundsystem (2005), Sound of Silver, and This.
More importantly, even if we accept rickety parallels between the two artists, Murphy echoing Bowie doesn’t lend any actual weight to This as an album, just as Pitchfork’s recent attempts to characterize Broken Social Scene as an epic clash of egos and dreams in the vein of…well, I assume Fleetwood Mac, though they don’t say this outright, or to tease out the similarities between the career arcs of Joanna Newsom and Joni Mitchell? None of these parallels, even if we accept they they exist, have any meaning beyond reductively characterizing bands and artists that we care about in the present by hinging their relevance on things we understand from the past. Which seems to me to be kind of backwards. And further, in the specific case of This, neither does the implication that Murphy styles his sonic palette the way Bowie did in the late 1970s carry water: there’s a huge difference between Brian Eno walking into a Berlin studio and enthusiastically playing Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (1977) for Bowie—i.e. making rock music that appreciates broader musical trends—and James Murphy hearing Daft Punk and thinking, “I should make a song that sounds like Daft Punk, that mentions Daft Punk, and that verifies that yes, indeed, I’m a fan of Daft Punk.” Neither is wrong, or less valuable; it’s just the difference between showing and telling. It’s the difference, as I suggested in our Top 100 Albums of the Decade list, between the Avalanches and Girl Talk. When This single “Pow Pow” was released, tell me your first thought wasn’t “this sounds like the Talking Heads.” And even if we’re being more nuanced: “this sounds like the Talking Heads mixed with Lizzy Mercier Decloux, some overtly gothic vocal runs, and some ESG on the low end.” Which is pretty par for the course at this point, isn’t it? Especially the part where Murphy has yet to recapture the magic resulting from a similar centrifuge of styles when producing his masterful “Yeah” 12’‘ (2004).
The second contextual aspect to Pitchfork’s appraisal of Murphy’s career places This as a culmination of his experiments to transform his post-punk influences into dance tracks. But again I’m stuck: I’m not sure when Pitchfork decided that Murphy was suitable shorthand for the post- and dance-punk revival of the first half of the last decade that also featured a whole bunch of other, equally interesting and talented bands, many of which still exist. Is it just because the easiest way to deal with the Echoes (2003) fuck up is to give all the props to the man behind the curtain? That’s an easy joke, I know, but giving Murphy all this praise seems like another hand wave that shoos away the relevance of, just to name obviously PF-approved bands, the Fire Show, Mu, Hot Hot Heat, Bloc Party, Love is All, Franz Ferdinand, !!!, Ladytron, Death from Above 1979, Annie, Robyn, Liars, Enon, the Long Blondes, O.U.T.H.U.D., Tom Vek, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or any number of other bands and artists central to the re-figuring out of how to turn punk music into something you might dance to. Ultimately, that seems just as weird to me as opting to fit Murphy in with Bowie over bands to which he clearly owes his ancestry: ESG and Liquid Liquid, obviously, but also the Au Pairs, Danielle Dax, Y-Pants, the Associates, Delta 5, P-Model, Chrome, Dead Can Dance, Gang of Four, Killing Joke, Lene Lovich, Decloux, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Prefab Sprout, Soft Boys, Yazoo, Scritti Politti, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, R.E.M., Talking Heads, U2, bla bla bla. Point being, shoving Murphy into the Bowie box doesn’t make sense as anything but an attempt to paint Murphy with the strokes of Bowie’s relevance. Or maybe “Heroes” (1977)—which, admittedly, Murphy tries his hardest to get “All I Want” to sound like—is just a hipper touchstone than “Telegraph” (1983)—which is what “All I Want” actually sounds like—because Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark were on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack (1986)?
I really think This needs to be removed from that context to have any sort of useful discussion about it. See, the members of the Cokemachineglow staff do not all agree on the relative quality of this album (nor, to be fair, do I assume that the entire Pitchfork staff feels the same way about it). The one thing we all do agree on, however, is that there’s nothing epic about This. The staunchest defenders of the record in our ranks are not of the “Murphy is misunderstood and put upon and this rocks and you’re too uptight to like it” school; they’re simply talking maybe a high 70 score, and they’re basing that on this old chestnut: it’s a well-made fun album, so who cares if Murphy is a dick or his lyrics suck? Well…I have little to say about those lyrics in a specific sense that doesn’t simply repeat analysis Conrad has already masterfully provided in his previous engagements with LCD Soundsystem, but I do think it’s worth stepping back for a second to appreciate just why I’m not sure I buy the argument that Murphy’s lyricism is irrelevant. Besides, you know, the fact that Murphy is bad at writing lyrics.
Like, I don’t actually think James Murphy is a dick. I think he’s obscenely self-aware that he has a dick, as is the male-dominated music media that loves him, but mostly I’d suggest that the problem isn’t dickishness so much as the way he’s kind of hilariously hamstrung by being granted this weird guru-ish position by Pitchfork and other media outlets to playfully explore concepts of hipness and irony and aging masculinity and whatever else has become his current bugaboo, as if he has total authority on the subject. He gets this pass because he’s held up, explicitly or implicitly, as an example of how millennial indie rockness—literally, how having fun—doesn’t have to die when you turn 40 (as he now has), or have kids, or get married, or whatever. The problem, as horrible ideas like This’s lead single “Drunk Girls” make abundantly clear, is that Murphy’s world view—at least as he often clumsily expresses it in his music—doesn’t seem particularly deep, leading him to stumble whenever he tackles subjects that have the potential to make him look like a dick. Which does kind of make him a dick, but also kind of an unwitting dick. At some point, playing at having a Maxim worldview and having a Maxim worldview melt into one another, and I can’t tell the difference, and I especially can’t tell the difference with Murphy because, again, he is bad at writing lyrics.
See, he can get away with the simple and un-deep sentiment of “All of My Friends,” which explores personal anxieties about getting older and how life affects friendship, or This’s “I Can Change,” which explores the effects being in love has on one’s individuality, because both songs seem sincere enough that his shit doesn’t get weighed down by his inability to differentiate between himself and his satire of himself—even if I have to ask what’s quite so appealing about a life philosophy that is constantly lamenting all the ways an individual has to change to accommodate their relationships with other people. But songs like “Drunk Girls” and “Pow Pow”? If you don’t want folks to smart at you for careless bluster, you probably shouldn’t—in the otherwise cute “I Can Change”—gender “love” “a woman” and then personify “love” as “a murderer.” Or mention the word “pedophile” in a song about “drunk girls.” My beef is when people talk about how James Murphy has the unique ability to explain my generation to me and I…just don’t get it. My pro-This colleagues are right that his lyrics are too hackish to be anything other than meaningless, exactly until the point when somebody tells me they’re really about me. And that’s exactly the point where I suddenly feel far less charitable and point out that Murphy looks constipated on the cover of his new album. That’s retaining your edge.
Which leaves how it sounds. In a technical sense it sounds, like everything Murphy produces, pristine. The best tracks—“Home,” “All I Want,” and “I Can Change”—all clearly reference an early ’80s palette. This is much cleaner than his early material, as well: “Home” is the only track that really echoes the free form krautrock palette that was more apparent on his earlier work, and while Murphy still occasionally sticks errant synth lines and percussion riffs into the folds of his tracks, they rarely pull focus. That turns out to be a blessing and a curse—the instrumental portions of This are directionless and sparse in a way that doesn’t always complement their length. Combined with the fact that these songs are generally even more straightforward than what he tried on Sound of Silver, the tracks tend to blend together. “Somebody’s Calling Me”—a dirge that lasts almost seven minutes, strangling any flow or momentum the album achieves otherwise—is the only true failure here, but the real problem, I think, is that the rest of the album is just so-so. “You Wanted a Hit,” “Drunk Girls,” “Pow Pow,” “Dance Yrself Clean,” and “One Touch” all suffer from sounding like other artists, from vamping too long on slight ideas, and from relying on Murphy’s personality as much as the musical ideas he commits to them. So, like, the whole Murphy shtick that I just spent paragraphs shitting on is the most distinguishing factor of these tracks, which ends up about as well as you might expect. I’ve already said “Pow Pow” sounds like the Talking Heads, but is it really cool to hear him yell about Barack Obama in his David Byrne voice? And…what’s his point? But “Dance Yrself Clean” is the most egregious example of this problem, and because it starts the album, and because the song itself starts out with the most impressive example of Murphy’s self indulgence on This, I can tell you right now: if you’ve ever had any reason to dislike LCD Soundsystem in the past, it’s like he’s taunting you.
Actually getting into his music, as it always does, simply requires referencing his touchstone(s) for each song. Which I’m not going to do, because I’m not reviewing other bands. What I will say is the moments of instrumental clarity that emerge from the saccharine sentiments of “Home” remind me why I do believe my above assertion that Murphy is an important figure in music: when he gets a good idea, he knows how to build it into a frenetic rush of sound. But he doesn’t really do that anymore, and frankly I wasn’t waiting for “You Wanted a Hit,” Murphy’s ode to the most annoying aspects of the Spoon back catalog. If you hear a vicious dance album that simultaneously captures the ennui of our generation, cool, I guess; we can still go out for a beer. But I just hear a very good producer and very bad writer once again only somewhat succeeding at making a good pop album. Which doesn’t make it an atrocity, but neither would referencing Joy Division make it just as good as “Atrocity Exhibition.” Just like singing like David Byrne doesn’t make you any more capable than Trey Anastasio. Just like referencing David Bowie doesn’t make James Murphy anything other than James Murphy. Which isn’t a bad thing to be, so what’s the big deal?