When James Murphy first started getting offers to take his LCD Soundsystem project on tour, he had to cobble together an actual live act, and teach his bandmates and himself how to perform songs that were originally studio creations, constructed piece-by-piece. In the concert film Shut Up And Play The Hits, Murphy tells interviewer Chuck Klosterman about this painstaking process of listening to his records over and over to work out the parts, until finally he and friends became, “The best LCD Soundsystem cover band in the world.”
But that’s also a fair description of how Murphy wrote and recorded those songs in the first place. LCD Soundsystem records are unapologetically derivative of dozens of recognizable sources: The Fall, Talking Heads, King Crimson, Can, Big Black, David Bowie, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, New Order, and more. That’s because Murphy first made his name in the New York scene as a DJ with eclectic taste, mixing edgy rock, art-disco, and pure party music; and when he started making his own singles and LPs, the goal was to take the best parts of what he liked, and combine it into a sound that would move people, either emotionally or on the dance floor.
It didn’t take long for Murphy to connect broadly. As the co-founder (with Tim Goldsworthy) of one of the early 2000s hippest indie labels, DFA, Murphy was already a well-known guy around town, which meant he drew immediate attention with his catchy, funny, melancholy debut single “Losing My Edge.” Arriving right when the world was enamored of new, retro-minded New York rock bands like The Strokes, Interpol, and DFA’s The Rapture, the early LCD Soundsystem tracks became essential as both a commentary on and an encapsulation of what was going on in the city. Once his concept was established, Murphy kept topping himself, making a conscious effort to have each album be grander and more eclectic.
Murphy did this in part because that was his band’s mission: to make an effort, while so many of his peers were cultivating a cool remove. But LCD Soundsystem also maintained such a high level of quality control because Murphy knew the act wasn’t going to be around for long. From the start, he talked about quitting before he turned 40, and while he extended LCD Soundsystem’s life just a little longer than he intended, few would argue that he overstayed his welcome. In just under 10 years of existence, the band only recorded three LPs, supplemented by scattered singles, remixes, live records, and compilation cuts. That’s not a huge body of work.
Because most of the essential LCD Soundsystem songs are lengthy—as befits the group’s dance-club origins—there’s only room for ten in this Power Hour, which means some painful exclusions had to be made. (No “Yeah,” no “North American Scum,” no “Dance Yrself Clean,” no “Someone Great.”) Yet if Murphy were to reconvene the group tomorrow and play this hourlong set in this order, it’s hard to imagine too many fans being unhappy.
A frequent set-starter for LCD Soundsystem, “Us V Them” begins as robotic disco, complete with cowbell, chicken-scratch guitar, and monotone vocals. But as the beat intensifies, Murphy’s voice gets more expressive, and the music gets richer, taking on the choral quality of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. (In Shut Up And Play The Hits, shortly before the song opens, a giant mirror-ball descends, like a divine visitation.) The title is a bit of a provocation, suggesting some wide cultural chasm with a right side and a wrong. That wasn’t an uncommon move for Murphy, who often seemed to be filing dispatches from the front lines of the Brooklyn hipster wars. But he also had a way of skirting that kind of reductive tribalism, so that he could be part of a scene while cocking a wary eyebrow at it. Really, “us” and “them” could refer to the division within the song itself, between rigid and raucous—and here both approaches have their virtues.
The lead track from LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut album is ridiculously catchy, from its thick, fuzzy guitar and synth line to its giddy name-checking of the biggest dance band of the moment. “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” is first and foremost an entertaining reverie, imagining the house party of the century, in some utopian world where arena acts and indie-rockers work side-by-side. And as modest as Murphy can be in interviews, part of him also had to know that with this song he created something that equaled Daft Punk’s biggest singles. Given his sense of decorum, he likely wouldn’t have nodded to the Frenchmen in the first place if he didn’t think he was seeing them eye-to-masked-eye.
Murphy grew up as a punk rocker in small town New Jersey, and from time to time he drew on that past, indulging in some little flat-out thrashing. In “Movement” Murphy cranks up the BPM, lurching from a tinny sequencer to layers of distorted, furiously squalling guitar. A lot of LCD Soundsystems music is about controlled frenzy, but “Movement” cuts loose, and out-rocks the garage-rockers who were gathering en masse in New York at the time.
LCD Soundsystem’s early music mostly worked within the parameters of Murphy’s artier and/or kitschier influences, but by the time of the band’s final album This Is Happening he was copying a lot of the pop acts he grew up with—including the various synth-driven artists who constituted the “second British Invasion.” The burbling keyboards and pretty washes of “I Can Change” would slot easily between Human League and Bronski Beat on any oldies station’s 1980s section, but what’s ironic about the throwback sound is that it accompanies a desperate lyric about the singer’s willingness to improve, for the sake of his relationship. There’s something moving about how Murphy equates romanticism with stylistic regression here, as though all his best qualities were tied up with the person he used to be.
Here’s another song that complicates the question of whether Murphy’s surveys of New York nightlife were meant to be catty. The trashy, chant-along sound of “Drunk Girls” suggests that he’s being critical, singing about the kind of obnoxious, self-absorbed partiers who block sidewalks and shriek into the wee hours of the morning. But there’s also an admiring tone to his description of drunk girls, with their secret knowledge and their patience with long bathroom lines. Besides, it’s this kind of raw pop silliness—more lightly funny than scathing—that sets LCD Soundsystem’s more yearning songs apart.
When he’s talked about his early songs in interviews, Murphy often reduces them to their formulas—not in any crassly commercial way, but in terms of how combining the right beats and riffs can quickly fill a dance floor. Anyone with the right equipment can construct a track that gets people up and moving, but the goal of a song like “Give It Up” is to have dancers flailing, in utter, ecstatic abandon. This is the essence of what LCD Soundsystem did, fusing the groove of electronic music with punk’s feeling of release.
If there’s one LCD Soundsystem song that should go into a time capsule as representative of its era and genre—and of Murphy’s entire sensibility—it’d have to be his first single. It’s not that Murphy never topped “Losing My Edge.” (There are three or four entries on this list that are its equal or even its better.) But he laid out the thesis statement for LCD Soundsystem here, musically and thematically. Like “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” this song is a fantasy, plopping Murphy into the middle of various key moments in the history of underground music movements. Like “Us V Them,” it explores a division, between the “everything available all of the time” generation and the older scenesters who had to work harder to be hip. And like the rest of the LCD Soundsystem discography, it’s a celebration of the musicians who’ve made Murphy’s life more meaningful and pleasurable—many of whom he cites in a minute-long frenzy of name-checking.
There’s no ignoring the importance of LCD Soundsystem’s New York base to its success. Murphy drew on the heat that was building around the city’s scene around the time that he started the project, and his lyrics often commented on what was happening around town, as its neighborhoods began to skew younger and cliques started to form. While Murphy’s not a native New Yorker, his music became the soundtrack to the cool New York neighborhoods in the early 2000s, embraced by others who’d arrived from elsewhere (and by people who lived out in the sticks and wanted to dream about moving to NYC someday). Musically, “New York, I Love You” out-of-character for LCD Soundsystem—a cabaret ballad, not the least bit danceable—but the name alone says a lot about where the band’s head was at, as Murphy expressed his passionate ambivalence.
The first half-decade of LCD Soundsystem’s music could hardly be called “frivolous,” but Murphy did adopt a somewhat puckish persona, often indicating he’d rather crack wise than be serious. With the band’s second album Sound Of Silver though, the music matured, and so did the subject matter. “All My Friends” revisits the premature burnout of “Losing My Edge,” and finds him more pensive and less pissy—still worried about his place in the culture, but mostly wishing he didn’t feel so harried and so alone. It’s strange to refer to a song as uptempo as “All My Friends” as a tearjerker, but it’s not hard to understand why the Madison Square Garden audience in Shut Up And Play The Hits is enraptured and weepy during the band’s performance of that number. It expresses something deeply personal, yet not too hard for even a non-rock-star to relate to.
Murphy’s first LCD Soundsystem single was an anxious song about generational division, but the last song on the band’s final album was mellower and more reflective—a long look into the mirror from someone asking whether he can ever find a place to settle comfortably. Returning to the 1980s burble of “I Can Change” and the Talking Heads communal wail of “Us V Them,” “Home” wraps up a brief-but-brilliant career with a dissatisfied sigh—a Murphy kind of closure.
Total time: 59:23