James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem was always already obsessed with growing old. He was always already aware of the irresistible, corrosive force that aging exerts on a musician in the public eye, with the kids coming up from behind. Then he started his project, which grew from a quasi-solo endeavor under Murphy’s own Death From Above label into the sprawling, 10-member collective that played Bill Graham Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 14 and 15.
The song that started it all was “Losing My Edge,” a semi-satirical fantasia of anxious name-dropping and impossibly cool antics. “I hear that everybody you know / Is more relevant than everybody I know” was the apotheosis, a Mean Girls burn masquerading as self-abnegation and refracted through a jaded, self-consciously art-damaged New York sensibility. After three full albums in 2005, 2007, and 2010, LCD had mastered the art of post-disco post-punk, with six and eight minute songs that were at once gleefully derivative and inexhaustibly catchy. Murphy was always smart enough to know that only assholes think relevance is an aesthetic category.
Then he decided to call it quits at the peak of LCD’s game — just like Jerry Seinfeld did with his TV show, which a 22-year-old James Murphy just so happened to turn down a job writing for in the early ’90s. Only 11 months after the release of This Is Happening, on April 2, 2011, LCD played a farewell concert at Madison Square Garden. The worries about irrelevance had given way to mainstream-ification anxiety, and to Murphy, those might almost be closely related (if not identical). “Drunk Girls” was clearly meant to be This Is Happening‘s breakout song, and you could almost sense a “featuring-the-hit-single” sticker getting slapped on the CD shrink-wrap.
Waving bye-bye wasn’t quite like David Bowie in July 1973 saying, “It’s not only the last show of the tour, it’s the last show we’ll ever do” and then dumping Ziggy Stardust for a new alter ego. But it didn’t feel like a calculated lie.
This week’s shows were hardly a roaring comeback; LCD had headlined day one of Outside Lands only last year. But that was the teaser tour, a consolidation of the band’s energies tethered to rumors of a new album. There was also no small amount of fence-mending for fans who’d already had their hearts broken after the farewell concert only to feel like their “yeah, I was there” cred had been negated by LCD’s resurrection.
It wasn’t, as “Call the Police” has it, a “full-blown rebellion,” but people were justifiably suspicious. Then American Dream came out in September, and the bad vibes up and died right away. It’s a little darker than its predecessors, with moodier ruminations on mortality — “I never realized these artists thought so much about dying” — but it is unmistakably an LCD Soundsystem record in spite of all the tectonic shifts that have happened in whatever passes for alternative culture that have transpired in the last seven years. It was only a few weeks ago that New Yorkers were informed they could legally even dance.
American Dream‘s title is its most ambiguous part, because of the tenor of the time and because whatever might pass for dreams on this record feel more like hauntings. In lieu of a “Home” or “I Can Change,” the album’s fulcrum is “How Do You Sleep” a primal, nine-minute anchor tenant that laments Murphy’s relationship with Tim Goldsworthy, a former production partner with whom he’d had a bitter falling out. (It was a little surprising that LCD didn’t play it on Tuesday. (It could have been the set’s opener, since it builds up in three distinct phases, like climbing the first tiers of a ziggurat.) But maybe the feelings are too raw. Who can even map out the interpersonal tensions that must flare up from time to time in a band this large?
Instead, LCD’s set was an almost-perfectly predictable collection of songs, a string of party lights that are connected but come in different colors. Leading off with “Get Innocuous,” and “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” and “I Can Change” — with the end of the lines “Love is an open book to a verse / Of your bad poetry” changed to “shitty poetry,” the first of several potty-mouthed swaps — it descended into the only sloppy song of the evening, “Call the Police.” All the component parts collapsed into one indistinct sonic mush.
Things perked right back up again with “I Used To,” and “You Wanted a Hit” at its most Kid A-esque. The bass line to “Someone Great” borrowed liberally from Angelo Badalementi’s Twin Peaks theme. As Bill Graham is catty-corner from City Hall, whose rotunda was light up in blue, pink, and white for Transgender Awareness Week, it was doubly poignant when Murphy introduced the band, emphasizing the honorific for “Ms. Gavin Russom,” the band’s tech wizard, who’d come out as trans over the summer. A less-than-danceable but excellent version of “Change Yr Mind” spun into “Tonite,” and then the crowd-pleasers took over, starting with “Home.”
Shut Up and Play the Hits was the documentary of the Madison Square Garden Show, so that’s to be expected, but while Murphy was on a self-described pee break, the real surprise was a new-to-the-tour cover of Chic’s “I Want Your Love” and then the eternally bittersweet, also lyrically updated “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” For the encore: “Oh Baby,” “Dance Yrself Clean,” and the inimitable, only-LCD-sound-you-can-ever-find-on-a-karaoke-list “All My Friends.” It was a mass geek-out.
You can sense the perturbations that roil James Murphy’s mind, the bemused wonder and self-awareness of a schlubby 47-year-old still grasping at hipness — even as he looks almost like Steve Bannon’s nattily dressed kid brother. But for someone seized by thoughts of his own impermanence, his band’s foothold is surer than ever.