At first blush this is clearly the least impressive and urgent LCD album.
In retrospect, the revelation that James Murphy ended LCD Soundsystem as part of a marketing scheme to sell out Madison Square Garden marked a fitting send-off for a band founded on a kaleidoscopic embodiment of inherited poses and styles. Nonetheless, in classic LCD fashion, the put-on morphed into the sincere, and that farewell show still stands out as arguably the apogee of the Aughts indie era, a resplendent party that tied a colossal bow on a movement; in a better world, Arcade Fire would have announced their own retirement right there on stage after guesting on “North American Scum” in an acknowledgement that this moment in music history had reached its conclusion. To bring the band back after such a dissolution threatens to undo what made it special, which only places yet more pressure on any new material.
As if visibly weighed down by expectation, American Dream, with its blasé title and nondescript album cover, announces a timid return before you even press play. Opener “Oh Baby” epitomizes this newfound sense of caution, recalling the slow burn of “Dance Yrself Clean” without the soaring catharsis. Grounded by a rapid but gentle click track that slightly fluctuates in pitch, the track synchronizes with a newfound weariness and wizened serenity in Murphy’s tone. Even when Murphy sings longing lines like “I’m on my knees,” he sounds less infused with the desperation of his most earnest earlier work. Instead, he sings as if offering an invitation, coming from a more centered place.
Both Murphy and the band sound trepidatious but also matured, a mood that hangs over much of the album. In fact, the title of one track, “I Used To,” could have been the record’s alternate title. As the name would indicate, the song delineates Murphy from his fannish youth, a distinction developed even further on lead single “Call the Police.” As Tyler Pope’s sharp, strummed bass chords lay out a driving dance tune, Murphy floats above, his voice only slightly building in intensity out of step with the steady crescendo of the arrangement. As the drums and bass bounce around with post-punk glee, Murphy stays rooted in place, not detached but nonetheless hanging back in a barking croon as he describes fandom building to a riot. But what should be a barnstorming LCD epic instead never reaches the heights that its riffs indicate, with curiously muted production and Murphy’s distanced vocal aligning him not with the maelstrom but with the older onlookers scared of the eruption and at best only mildly stirred to nostalgia by it. Murphy used to poke fun at the idea of being the old nerd leading kids along like a rarities-loving Pied Piper, but here he tests, with dubious results, the possibilities of truly accepting his age.
Occasionally, Murphy retreats from his present to lurch back into the reference-heavy post-punk that made the band’s name. “Other Voices” boasts a bright, palm-muted bassline that coils around polyphonic keys to make a dead ringer for Remain in Light-era Talking Heads. Meanwhile, “Emotional Haircut” digs up the garage rock element of LCD’s sound and milks perhaps the most literal-sounding rendition of “dance-punk” that the band has ever made, complete with a rowdy backing vocals made for venues far smaller than the festival stages the band now headlines with regularity. On “Change Yr Mind,” the band even manages to chuck in a throwback guitar sound that recalls Robert Fripp at his liveliest in its heavily processed, laser-focused attack, all as Murphy does his best strung-out, late-‘70s Iggy Pop impression.
Fun as these tracks are, they ultimately present an opposite issue to the meandering middle-aged tracks, that of a sense of stasis. Thankfully, the back half of the album boasts a number of songs that do what LCD Soundsystem do best: find the common thread between disparate sounds and moods and unite them into something new and idiosyncratic. “Tonite” is the kind of squelching, noisy house music that one would expect to hear from others in Murphy’s DFA stable like Factory Floor. Anchored by a clanging industrial beat and interspersed with vocoder-treated vocals, the track makes a virtue of its unchanging rhythm, extracting off-techno judders of loping melodies.
Both the title track and the nightmarish “How Do You Sleep?” are similarly stuck in first gear, but each unites form and function via compelling narratives of uncertainty. Both feel like inescapable dreams, the former a seemingly joyous reverie made stale and unsettling by how long it’s lasted, the latter a chilling account not unlike Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain,” with vocals that sound passed down from a craggy outcropping with traumatized calm. “How Do You Sleep?” then begins to shift subtly, poking against the spacious horror of its soundscape, mixing claustrophobia and epic sweep so deftly that it embodies several kinds of fear and hope at once, emerging at the end as the band’s finest epic since “All My Friends.” Capped off by a great ballad in “Black Screen,” American Dream ends on far surer footing than it begins, and if at first blush this is clearly the least impressive and urgent LCD album, its second half suggests depths that demand repeated listening and point the way at new avenues the band can explore.