Have you ever been prepared to be totally disappointed by an album? It felt like most of the musical press was preparing for a grand letdown from LCD Soundsystem’s return from a five-year hiatus. There was the angle that band mastermind James Murphy perhaps broke up the band in a bid to sell out Madison Square Garden, the focus on his preoccupation with landing a #1 album, all the bad feelings left over from the absurd pageantry that made up the release of Everything Now by his friends in Arcade Fire. People seem perhaps a bit fatigued by the self-deprecating, indie dude with big rock n roll dreams shtick. But here’s the thing–there is no one who does that shtick better than Murphy because for Murphy it isn’t a shtick. He wears his heart on his sleeve. So while you might have been imagining LCD Soundsystem’s new record would be dancy, irreverent and perhaps a nod to the successes of Murphy’s peers in Daft Punk (who once played his house), what Murphy delivers instead is a bonafide slow-burn rock album–one that is more powerful, poignant and perfect than any other major rock release so far this year.
Forget Arcade Fire, forget the new Queens of the Stone Age–James Murphy distills rock and roll to its very essence on American Dream and he does it with synthesizers, triangles and an surprising regard for the genre itself. While Josh Homme drops references to every record he ever owned on QOTSA’s Villains, Murphy drills down into the essence of what makes any rock song great and in most cases he finds the answer is passion. Opener “Oh Baby” creeps forward pulsing with that signature warm LCD Soundsystem synth. Murphy lays himself bare out of the gate: “Oh baby you’re having a bad dream here in my arms.” This sweet, sultry song eventually reveals a scene with Murphy apologizing to his lover that he can’t achieve an erection–perhaps due to his use of cocaine. “Oh I’m on my knees/Yeah, I’m on my knees/I promise I’m clean/But my love life waits.” This is audio heartbreak. On “Other Voices” Murphy channels David Byrne over a throbbing bass line and a squealing psychedelic guitar line. “Oh that shit’s a dictator/Time won’t be messed with Buddy, no no no/You can’t be believed/And you cannot believe what you are told/You’re still a baby now,” he chides.
“I Used To” thunders forward, all post-rock swagger, with Murphy lamenting, “I used to dance alone of my own volition/I used to wait all night for the rock transmissions.”
“How Do You Sleep” is cavernous, propelled by staccato percussion. The void fills as a Knife-like synth line consumes the track. The epic rock track morphs, albeit slowly, into a dance floor stomper.
“Tonite” is the most readily recognizable LCD Soundsystem song–a simple, unrelenting, almost industrial bass functions as the track’s spine as Murphy lampoons the subject matter of modern pop hits. “And what’s it you do again?/Oh I’m a reminder/The hobbled veteran of the disk shop inquisition/Set to parry the cocksure of men’s sick filth/With my own late era middle-aged ramblings,” Murphy questions and then answers himself. “Every lover favors the same things/It’s all ‘touch me, touch me, touch me, touch me tonight,’” he continues his diatribe. “We maybe realize what it is we need before we die/And luck is always better than skill at things/We’re flying blind/Oh good gracious/I sound like my mom.”
Maybe Murphy does sound like his mom, but American Dream makes him a 100-percent-certified rock and roll hero—and there aren’t many of those left these days. Murphy comes to terms with that fact and his failings on album closer “Black Screen.” Murphy recounts on the synth pop masterpiece his hero worship of his friend David Bowie, recounting how he saved email chains and was made giddy by Bowie’s quick replies. How Bowie missed his wedding because he was “Too sick to travel.” He revels in how simultaneously normal and exceptional the relationship was. And then regret begins to seep in. “Where have you been?/In the room/So I stopped turning up/My hands kept pushing down/In my pockets/I’m bad with people things/But I should have tried more.” He recalls having been invited to co-produce Bowie’s final album Blackstar, only to eventually abandon the project due to nerves. American Dream is the sound of a man coming to terms with regret, and deciding that he can’t take anything for granted–especially his rock ‘n roll fantasy. On Monday, American Dream was certified as the number one album on the Billboard charts.