This Is Happening
James Murphy, the man behind LCD Soundsystem, has always straddled the line between self-consciousness and sincerity. A former behind the scenes player/engineer/producer/DJ, his years in semi-obscurity seem to have lent him a sense of humility and awareness that many of his peers lack. While that’s been charming on releases like “Losing My Edge” and “North American Scum,” it’s refreshing to see him step to the fore of his own music. On LCD’s third (and possibly last) album, This Is Happening, Murphy demonstrates his skill as a singer like never before, while still maintaining the improbably catchy beats he’s known for.
While LCD’s previous records (in particular their eponymous debut) demonstrated an almost slavish devotion to Brian Eno’s catalog and his techniques of vocal affection and distortion, This Is Happening shifts the focus to the other main man of ’70s art rock, David Bowie. Murphy’s singing is undeniably inflected with Bowie’s plastic soul crooning, while occasionally slipping into the flatly conversational tones of his own early work. Musically, it’s still astonishing what beautiful melodies Murphy can construct through carefully layered percussion; clocking in at over an hour in just nine tracks, the album is entirely dance floor ready yet also proper listening for a lonely headphone night. As ever, LCD’s sound is carefully orchestrated beats accented by peculiar synthesizers and as ever, it works.
Opening with “Dance Yrself Clean,” the album begins in an uncharacteristically dour fashion, an almost tribal pattering of hollow sounding percussion against a deep bass synthesizer. Murphy intones typically caustic lines like, “Talking like a jerk/ Except you are an actual jerk/ And living proof that sometimes friends are mean” until the music explodes in a hugely amplified version of the synth riff, switching from sourness to a dance plea in only seconds. The first single off the album “Drunk Girls,” meanwhile, is a thudding, infectious recitation of the difference between drunk girls and drunk boys (“Drunk girls get invitations from nations/ They have the patience of saints/ But drunk boys steal from cupboards/ Drunk girls like to file complaints“) and a strangled, painfully human chorus. “One Touch” finds Murphy reassuming the vocal distortions and fuzzy synths that first made him a name, while “All I Want” is overtly Bowie, guitars as distorted and skittering as on “Heroes.”
And This Is Happening does occasionally overstep on its influences. In particular, “Somebody’s Calling Me” is a lethargic reheat of “Nightclubbing” leftovers, except it’s close to seven minutes. But it’s the only miss on an album that includes the spiteful “Pow Pow,” which gets atypically political but typically acidic with lyrics like “We have a black president and you don’t, so shut up/ Because you don’t know shit about where I’m from that you didn’t get from magazines” and the label-baiting “You Wanted A Hit” (key line: “But we don’t do hits.“) Most of all, it includes “I Can Change,” a New Wave influenced plea for love and stability that ranks alongside some of LCD’s finest work. His vocals have rarely been so unguarded and stretched so far, all over a shimmering, almost eerie synthesizer reminiscent of Gary Numan.
LCD’s newest album doesn’t ever quite reach the high watermark of “All My Friends,” but is it really fair to judge by that? Indeed, yes it is- when a musician manages to touch the supernal at least once, we’ll always be hoping for that again in the future. This Is Happening is a great record and one of the best of the year so far. Only by the heights which Murphy can reach could it possibly be found wanting. If this is LCD’s final album, he’ll have a lot to be proud of.