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Album review: LCD Soundsystem, "This Is Happening

lcd soundsystemIf it's the end for LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy went out on a high. (Ruvan Wijesooriya)

By Chris Richards

The myth goes like this: In a display of neurosis, determination and egomania, Picasso would bring his paintings to the Louvre before they were dry. He wanted to see if his work held up alongside the old masters.

James Murphy probably engages in similar behavior. As LCD Soundsystem, his third, purportedly final and almost best album, "This Is Happening," genuflects before the pantheon of David Bowie, Brian Eno and Talking Heads while simultaneously threatening to kick in the door.

This is hyper-sculpted music that remains hyper-aware of its influences, continuously mining the fault line between rock and disco. With vintage rhythms tumbling beneath blurting synthesizers and chewy bass lines, it should feel like a nostalgic exercise. Instead, it ends up sounding propulsive, radiant and wildly satisfying.

Murphy, the 40-year-old New York-based singer-songwriter-producer, first made waves eight years back with "Losing My Edge," a self-effacing anthem about clinging to indie cred as the years tick by. It would have been a novelty tune had the beat not been so killer. By 2007, Murphy's songwriting superpowers had come into full bloom via LCD Soundsystem's resplendent sophomore album, "Sound of Silver." It yielded oodles of critical gushing, a massive following, but no mainstream hits.

"Maybe we don't do hits," Murphy scoffs on "You Wanted a Hit," one of the standout tracks on "This Is Happening." Whether his intended audience is a jaded fan base, a crumbling record industry or the man in the mirror is anyone's guess. But this is still Murphy at his neurotic, self-contradicting best. Ranting about his motivations over a taut little guitar riff, he's using his album's catchiest song to explain why he refuses to deliver a catchy song.

In that first verse, he's a petulant songsmith. By the second verse, he's a down-on-himself lyricist: "You wanted the time. But maybe I don't do time. Oh, we both know that's an awful line." With "I Can Change," he continues the self-critical crooning: "Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry (and this is coming from me)." Keyboards chime along in icy timbres, not unlike Gary Numan's stiff new wave classic, "Cars."

In fact, every track on "This Is Happening" sounds like something that came before it, but still asserts itself as its own song. "Pow Pow" is a punky rejoinder to Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," with Murphy muttering a litany of questions, rote and existential all at once: "But honestly -- and be honest with yourself -- How much time do you waste? How much time do you blow every day?"

The bass flaps along in dry, delicious tone while the keyboards shimmer and twinkle. It's masterfully produced stuff, but despite Murphy's copious knob-twiddling, the final mix sounds completely organic -- a living, breathing band playing songs in an actual room. His smoke and mirrors obscure the smoke and mirrors.

And that's the core difference between this album and the prior ones. Murphy has returned to spending most of his energy in the production seat, steering away from the personal truths revealed with "Sound of Silver." That album offered songs where his self-deprecation was plaintive and candid. Now he's back to being snide and smug.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the album's first single, "Drunk Girls." It's a glam-rock tune with a brainless hook that seems doomed to frat party purgatory. "Drunk girls are boringly wild," he yelps early on, offering a glimmer of clever in an otherwise insipid song.

"Dance Yrself Clean," offers a similar despondency, only to a much better beat. But you have to wait for it. Three minutes trickle by before the song totally kicks in, all gunshot snares and avalanching keyboards. Musically, it's as gratifying as when John Bonham bursts into Led Zeppelin's "Over the Hills and Far Away" and as sumptuous as the moment the beat drops on Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby."

But Murphy's lyrics aren't as emotive as this righteous moment demands. He's hollering about Marxists, his voice buried beneath his instruments.

It seems so much easier for him to build these songs than to live in them.

Recommended tracks: "Dance Yrself Clean," "You Wanted a Hit," "Pow Pow"

By David Malitz  |  May 18, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Album reviews  | Tags: LCD Soundsystem  
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