Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is This It?

This Is Happening has been out for almost a year, but it took me a while to warm to it. In truth, it took a few months of occasional listening to really wrap my head around the disc, before I could even begin to give it a fair shake. It's not as immediately inviting as Sounds of Silver, which is still one of the best albums of the last decade. But I've slowly disabused myself of any notion that This Is Happening is an inferior follow-up to its universally-beloved predecessor. It's different.

One of the reasons I was slow to appreciate the album is that, despite the presence of a few predictably buoyant singles, the album as a whole is . . . well, tetchy is the word to which I keep coming back. It's irritable in places, downright confrontational. It doesn't lend itself to immediate appreciation: rather, it's the kind of album that takes a while to burrow itself into your memory. The reasons for this relates back, I believe, to a few conscious creative choices made by James Murphy with the express purpose of making a more prickly listening experience than either Sounds of Silver or his self-titled debut.

The first inkling of the album's theme comes on the opener, "Dance Yrself Clean." The song starts with a long, slow preamble, featuring Murphy's trademark sprechstimme over a soft, bare bones boom-bap & synthesizer percussion pattern. This goes on for a couple minutes before the actual house drums kick in, and it is the exact moment these drums kick in (at 3:07) that the album kicks into gear. Whereas most dance albums are engineered very brightly, with clearly differentiated low and high ends and a clear attention to detail (think of, well, Sounds of Silver, or any Chemical Brothers record), This Is Happening kicks off with a flash of dark, distortive contrast. The effect on "Dance Yrself Clean" is almost what you might expect from a Steve Albini record: it starts off so quiet that you have to strain to hear the words, and then the song sneaks up and shocks you. If you're like me, the first time you heard the record you turned the volume way up so you could hear what he was saying, only to get absolutely clobbered when those drums came in. When the song kicks off, yeah, it builds up a nice head of steam like any classic LCD joint. But the whole album plays little disorienting tricks like that, keeping the listener off-balance through very sharp contrasts between soft and loud, and allowing for a great deal of distortion in the space between.

It is, thematically, an archetypal "Berlin" album - even thought it was recorded in Los Angeles, half a world away from Germany, it still sounds like Berlin to me. (And it's worth remembering that even Bowie's Low - the first Berlin album, if you discount Lou Reed's Berlin, which was again not actually recorded in Berlin - was recorded in France. Berlin is less a place than a state of mind, dude.) Berlin is that place where rock stars go when they're filled with discontent and disenchantment, when they're crawling from the wreckage of something - drugs, success, interpersonal strife. I'm not a U2 fan - which is actually quite an understatement - but they wrote "One" in Berlin after one of the most fraught periods of their career. Even I'll admit that it's a damn good song, and if you don't know what the hell I'm talking about when I use "Berlin" as shorthand for a specific type of rock record, you probably still know that song and what it's about: it's about being trapped in the dark, feeling melancholy, coming from a place of hurt but working through the process in order to reach something better on the other side. Bowie in the late 70s recharged not just his music but his mythology with a trip to the "underworld" of Cold War-era Berlin, and since then the idea of "Berlin" has become lodged in the minds of subsequent generations of musicians as a kind of mystical way-station between creative burn-out and rebirth.

Murphy is very deliberate in his choice of stylistic markers. Some have dismissed "All I Want" for its cursory resemblance to Bowie's "Heroes." "Somebody's Calling Me" owes a bit to Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing" as well. But Murphy is smarter than mere homage and anyone who dismisses these tracks because of their obvious starting points is grossly misreading the text. "All I Want" is among the best song Murphy's ever written - and considering his status as one of the preeminent songwriters in pop music, that easily places "All I Want" among the best songs of the past few years. It is, to be blunt, a better and more poignant song than David Bowie could have written at any point in his career. I go through phases with Bowie, I admit: as much as I like his music - and I do, and I have about a foot of Bowie on my shelf to prove it - I get tired of Bowie, I get tired of his juvenile identity games and his chameleonic sound. I've spoke before about the ways that David Bowie and Batman operate on similar wavelengths for certain segments of fandom: you've got the notions of self-creation and will as a creative act, new moods and images being adopted and discarded with the frequency that Batman changes creative teams. Bowie sings about the people we wish we were, and that's why "Heroes" is a great song. But it's also exhausting, because at some point we all run out of steam and lose the enthusiasm we once had for reinvention and, well, being a drama queen wrapped in a black leather jacket. That is where James Murphy comes in, and that's why "All I Want" is such a brilliant song: it begins the exact moment "Heroes" ends, with the death of a heroic, glamorous doomed romance and the beginning of the rest of your life. It's that moment when you wake up and realize that sometimes love is made out of those softer feelings that don't always look so bold and flattering in the light of day. Sometimes all you've got left is pity. Bowie sings about who we want to be, but Murphy sings about who we are. So taking a bite out of "Heroes"? Naw, man, it's his song now.

But then I think, perhaps I'm overstating the case. Listening to the track on repeat, I have tried to isolate the source of it's "Bowie-ness." Is it the rhythm? The melody? The way the guitar sounds like Carlos Alomar's overdriven gloss? There's that, but nothing really specific - it's more a feeling, an atmosphere. There's a lot more going on with the song - and the album - than just Bowie. The way the tracks build and slowly coalesce - growing laterally, expanding instead of merely progressing on a line - is something that defies easy comparison. A song like "All I Want" can start with a simple riff and over the course of almost seven minutes build into a towering electronic anthem that owes as much to the "The Private Psychedelic Reel" as anything by Bowie. Murphy's music often starts with familiar themes or motifs before moving outwards: he grabs a riff from here, a beat from there, and the end result is something entirely different. Here, he's starting with Bowie, but he's ending with something that could only be Murphy.

The album offers deep rewards for repeat listening. There's the requisite upbeat party single, "Drunk Girls," (cf. "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House," "North American Scum"), but then there's the completely enervated funk of "Somebody's Calling Me." The heart of the album is actually, I think, a pair of nervous, confrontational and sparse dance songs, "You Wanted A Hit" and "Pow Pow." Both of these tracks are among Murphy's most minimal and forbidding productions - no giant day-glo hooks to be found. There's a hint of barely contained resentment seeping under the surface - OK, not really under the surface at all on "You Wanted A Hit." This is funky music for angry people, people who broadcast their discontent over stripped down disco beats:
From this position /
I can say "serious" or "cop-out" or "hard to define" /
From this position, from this position /
It's kind of like eating myself to death.
Once you get a feel for the record, it's hard not to perceive an overriding sense of dissatisfaction throughout the running time. This is not to say that the album itself is dissatisfying: quite the opposite. Rather, Murphy has taken his frustrations and ran with them, creating a fraught, messy, anxious and ambitious piece of art that turns mid-life unrest into - finally! - seriously redemptive noise. If that's not Berlin, I don't know what is.

It's a damn shame that he feels this is the note to go out on. Not because This Is Happening is in any way a creative disappointment: as a said before, quite the opposite. It's a shame because Murphy is quite clearly at the top of his game. His interviews reveal that his exhaustion stems from everything involved with making music except the actual making of the music. It's common knowledge that he never set out to make LCD Soundsystem a big thing. I can vouch for this, because I still remember when those early LCD Soundsystem singles started dropping back in the early 00s. They came out of nowhere, with (at least from what I understood, being fairly well -lugged-into the dance music world at the time) no real connection to anything else that was happening: just some old guy grumbling about how awful these kids were over a house beat. Lots of promising bands and artists pop up and produce one or a dozen well-regarded 12" records before eventually fading back into the ether of pleasant obscurity as they lose steam and / or interest. Not every electronic musician gets to graduate to that big "artist album" - and, truthfully, many of the producers who do release the LP quickly find that they're no Orbital.

James Murphy could never have predicted that something that was essentially a lark - a one-off single recorded by a guy who no longer had any real desire to be a famous rock star - would go on to be one of the most critically-acclaimed and influential bands of the decade. And yet it did. He became not just "a" guy but "The" guy. He doesn't want that so he's pulling the plug altogether. This strikes me as more than a little bit self-defeating. He doesn't like touring, he doesn't like the rigamarole of PR and he doesn't like the way that the band went from being something he did to something he was. There are certainly ways around all these problems for those who care to look: XTC was one of the most influential bands of the 80s without ever touring. REM only tour when they feel like it, and have no problems releasing albums to minimal publicity with the understanding that sometimes they just don't want to devote a year of their lives to touring.

Hopefully it's just a feint of some kind: there are lots of ways to continue making music without actually doing all the junk that goes along with being a working musician, especially for an established brand like LCD Soundsystem. He says he'll still be releasing music, as well as producing. I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for the production work he says is imminent. Hopefully he gets that out of his system and returns to making music - his own music - sometime soon. He's probably better than almost any of the bands who he'd be working with, in any event (well, maybe not Spoon, but that's a close call). (Is this what Brian Eno fans felt in the mid 70s when their hero turned his back on rock & roll to be Bowie's amanuensis and release sleepy ambient music? I don't think being the next Brian Eno would be a good career path for anyone, and I say that as someone who likes Brian Eno.) Maybe his grungy "Berlin" album will be followed by his Scary Monsters return to form and a subsequent Let's Dance pop makeover.

Anyone this talented and this smart who actually did walk away from his own music would be, simply, a fool. James Murphy doesn't strike me as a fool, but we shall see.

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