Sunday, May 9, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

Ever since James Murphy told Rolling Stone that LCD Soundsystem's upcoming album, This is Happening, might be the band's last, it's been difficult not to listen to the band's output with an ear toward their career arc. The first, self-titled album was the big debut, in many ways, the purest distillation of James Murphy's ideas about sound and music. Sound of Silver, then, was the refined, slightly re-imagined follow up. The album sounded bigger, roomier, the themes were heavier and darker, the melodies pushed a bit harder, and every moment of music felt relevant. So what could we possibly expect from the third album in what could potentially be LCD Soundsystem's nice, round trilogy? I'd hope for an album that grows the band's sound while offering a sense of closure. An album that carries the sonic threads of its predecessors to a logical destination--the arrangements should get bigger and weirder, the melodies catchier, the production sharper. When This is Happening leaked to the internet a few weeks back, I listened for all of the above. In other words, the possibility that This is Happening could be LCD Soundsystem's last album not only raised my expectations for the album, but it also raised the stakes for the album itself. If the record was going to meet my expectations, it seemed, Murphy and co. needed to show up with their A game.

As it turns out, This is Happening meets all of those expectations and, in the process, brings to mind the third film in another trilogy of note: Return of the Jedi. Now, I know that this is an extremely geeky comparison that would make hipsters across America gag in dismay on the alkaline drip at the back of their throats, or do spit takes out of their PBRs, and I also realize that the review I wrote right before this one also used sci fi movies as a point of reference, but hear me out. When Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, it was a fairly successful conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy. Following 1980's dark installment in the trilogy The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi managed to conclude the trilogy's narrative--and all of the character's emotional arcs--in about as satisfying and engaging a way possible. Jedi drew on Empire's darkness to pull in audiences with a sense of unbridled euphoria and release as those flashes of hopelessness and despair from the middle film were conquered with pure, raw excitement and the realization of a mostly happy ending. In just about every way mentioned above, This is Happening parallels Return of the Jedi. Not only does Murphy's latest album follow a darker, heavier album, its sounds and ideas feel like organic extensions from that predecessor. And, while This is Happening could never be confused for a light or unabashedly positive album--when has LCD Soundystem ever been either of those--it certainly signals an uptick from its predecessor's ruminations on mortality and loss.

So, if This is Happening isn't about mortality and loss, what is it about? Well, you know, James Murphy Stuff: alienation, relationships, failed relationships, raw human need, fucking up, having fun, and, perhaps most of all, carving out an okay space to call home somewhere between all of the above drama. In a way, the album feels like a conclusion, the hipster settling down into an uneasy domestication. So, like Sound of Silver, in its own way, This is Happening is still a record about getting older and figuring your shit out, even if none of its songs hang quite as heavy as the previous album's back-to-back masterpieces "Someone Great," and "All My Friends." And though nothing on This is Happening is as heavy or bold as those songs, the new album is still an exquisite addition to LCD Soundsystem's discography, and would definitely make for a good final chapter to this part of James Murphy's career. "Dance Yrself Clean," opens the album with one of Murphy's finest moments, an almost lo-fi prologue that explodes into analogue synth bursts that fizz and burst with buoyant urgency. "All I Want," is a fairly straight forward guitar-driven pop gem that clearly evokes Bowie's "Heroes," as Murphy sings "All I want is your pity." Perhaps the album's finest moment comes with the deliciously soulful "I Can Change," which finds Murphy delivering his finest vocal to date over a lush bed of synthesized textures. Other highlights include the percussive rave-up "Pow Pow," and the Talking Heads inflected "Home."

Of course, were I to go on listing all of the highlights on This is Happening I'd eventually name every song, and probably revisit some of them a second time. As it stands, I've already mentioned five of the album's nine songs, and one of those, "Drunk Girls," I would have mentioned had I not already devoted a blog post to it. That's sort of the whole point though--This is Happening is another exceptional album from LCD Soundsystem, start to finish.

If you're going to take one thing away from this rambling, fog-headed review, it's that This is Happening, while maybe not quite as strong as Sound of Silver, is another astonishingly good entry in LCD Soundsystem's catalog. Even the plodding, unsettling "Somebody's Calling Me," opens up on repeat listens, transcending its claustrophobic (and initially boring) trappings to become an exercise in seasick, paranoid psychadelia. All in all, while I hope that Murphy continues to make music this strong in some form or another, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if LCD Soundsystem went out on This is Happening. And, if this does end up being LCD's last album, I wouldn't be surprised if, a few years down the road, critics and music fans alike look back on the band's three long players as one of the finest trilogies in rock.


LCD Soundsysetm's This is Happening will be available on 5/18 through DFA. You can preorder the album here.

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