Berlin-era Bowie looms large over LCD Soundsystem’s spectacular American Dream
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LCD Soundsystem’s comeback album American Dream is packed with the anxiety of trying to bring back the past and the ghosts that still haunt — and it’s great. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib digs deep into their re-emergence of one of indie rock’s most beloved bands.
The louder the leaving, the more difficult it is to re-arrive in earnest. It is particularly difficult when a band exits the way LCD Soundsystem exited in 2010: a sprawling show that consumed Madison Square Garden for four hours before concluding in a wave of balloons falling from the ceiling during a final rendition of ‘New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’. This is how a band can garner the cynicism of fans who might feel like a reunion is just a grab for money, renewed relevance or some combination of the two.
Frontman James Murphy says that David Bowie is who convinced him to set aside his anxieties and pull the band back together at all costs. It serves, then, that American Dream – the band’s fourth album and first in seven years – is an album made up of the pieced-together sounds of both ghosts and the anxiety that comes with trying to summon back the past.
The band’s influences have always been wide, but the range here is much less veiled and calls directly to the band’s heroes. It is done in a way that tends more towards reimagining originals, instead of using them as a kind of karaoke machine. On ‘oh, baby’, the album’s opening song, one can close their eyes and follow the melodic ping-back to Suicide and Alan Vega’s notable ‘Dream Baby Dream’. On ‘how do you sleep?’, the charging and relentless percussion that sounds like it might be the interior rumble of an erratic and nervous heart is peeled straight from Talking Heads at their most frantic, as is the talky, comically paranoid nature of ‘emotional haircut’.
Murphy’s chameleon tendencies have always been sharp and admirable, but on American Dream, they are put through a particle accelerator – as if the time off created a sonic backlog that had to rush out all at once. This does create for an uneven listening experience, but not in a way that makes the album flawed. Because Murphy (who is the sole vehicle for the band’s vision) is so good at acting as a vessel for updating the sound of his many influences, it is less of a jarring rollercoaster and more of a thrill, like watching a puzzle come together out of nothing.
Bowie does haunt, of course. There is no getting around it. Murphy was asked to be a producer on Blackstar, the album that would be Bowie’s final work. Murphy did end up playing percussion on a couple of tracks, but backed out of the producer role due to feeling overwhelmed by a lack of confidence. With American Dream, he carves a place for Bowie to live again in brief bursts of light. The last line of ‘other voices’ (“you should be uncomfortable”) references what Bowie told him about reuniting the band. There are sound-tributes to Bowie, as well: Berlin-era Bowie on ‘call the police’ when Murphy yelps: “It moves like a virus and enters our skin / The first sign divides us, the second is moving to Berlin”; ‘black screen’, which borrows from late-career downtempo Bowie, presents a song where Murphy perhaps laments his inability to commit to the belief Bowie had in him (“I’m bad with people things / But I should have tried more”).
That is, of course, one reading of this work – that it exists in glorious tribute, to those gone and not. Murphy is also skilled at is giving a listener a small window into his mind. As a lyricist, he manages to be both unreliable and honest, allowing the songs to work as his brain might: uneven and trembling with what may or may not become of himself and the world he lives in. It is, undeniably, hard to go away with the world in one state and return with the world in another — which isn’t to say that the album is overtly political. The politics explored here are just largely interior: surviving the noise of your own anxieties until the noise ticks down to a more tolerable meter. These are the politics of merely staying alive in the midst of an undefined everything, which is happening all of the time.
It is great to have Murphy back as many of us loved him best: neurotic, worried, overthinking every step, wrecked by an entire army of lamentations and seeing no exit for any of them. All of LCD Soundsystem’s brilliant comeback can be summed up with a single line, spoken brightly on the song ‘tonite’ over a playful electronic wave: “Life is finite / but shit / it feels like forever.”
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is on Twitter.