Forget for a moment that This Is Happening was conceived and performed by a scene veteran whose first two studio LP’s of sardonic electro-rock were both critically acclaimed, and that one of them even cracked the Billboard Top 50. Similarly, disregard all the fawning press about how this same guy – with his permanent five o’clock shadow and tousled bedhead – is so inextricably hip that he has become synonymous with 21st century cool. Ignore all the hype and anticipation that dominated music websites and blogs in the weeks preceding this album’s release. Now, go sit down in your favorite IKEA chair and listen to LCD Soundsystem’s new sixty-minute opus from start to finish with the intent to answer one question: “Did I just waste my hard-earned cash and an hour of my life?” No, you did not. On the contrary, it might just be the best use of your time and money yet this year.
Some people write three-minute pop nuggets that, despite the myriad ingredients involved, possess a sense of excitement on par with waiting for lawn seed to sprout. Then there’s James Murphy. Dude writes tunes three times that length that seem to pass as quickly as the aforementioned radio staples, and often he does it all with just a single chord change (and a heaping dose of ironic wit). As much the embodiment of LCD Soundsystem as Trent Reznor is with Nine Inch Nails, Murphy has spent the better part of the last decade honing his craft, a run that’s seem him go from indie rock expatriate to dance-punk poster boy. On 2007’s Sound of Silver, Murphy’s intimate understanding of texture and tension is what made a minor hit out of a track like “All My Friends,” a hypnotic yet bouncy amalgam of minimalist piano rhythms that manages to suck you in with only D and A major chords. It’s a tactic we all secretly wish we had come up with, and the kind that is only to be found in the music of those who know that delayed gratification doesn’t have to feel like such hard work when the beats are this danceable.
This Is Happening employs several of the same compositional techniques that contributed to Silver’s prominent placement on most “Best of the Decade” lists, but the lyrics – which admittedly still retain an air of self-consciousness – are less irreverent this time around. Opening cut “Dance Yrself Clean” finds Murphy in comfortable DJ territory, though you wouldn’t know it from the ominous electronic pulses and tip toe percussion that occupy its first three minutes. Finally, with all the layers in their right place, a burbling synth groove kicks in, while Murphy goads his audience with lines like, “Just go and throw your little hands up.” The song may only utilize an E major and C# minor chord, but it’s the deft application of dynamic contrast, texture, and timbre that keep the listener engrossed for it entirety. Critical listeners will notice the attention to detail in the form of harmonized background vocals, strategically placed cowbell accents, and occasionally improvised keyboard riffs. Dance floor junkies will feel nothing but the infectious alternation of those two chords. Both parties come out feeling like winners.
For those whose first taste of the new LP came by way of lead single “Drunk Girls,” surprises await. The song is the only one of nine that makes its statement in less than five minutes, and its tone is as brash and blunt as its title suggests. “Be honest with me / honestly / unless it hurts my feelings,” sings Murphy, but quips like these don’t resonate when they’re up against such snarky frat-rock.
The remainder of the disc has zero filler. While tunes like “All I Want” and “Somebody’s Calling Me” are bound to elicit an unavoidable Bowie or Iggy Pop reference, they both still sparkle with Murphy’s nuanced touch. They’re the type of tracks – and please pardon the rock crit cliché – that reward repeated listening. The former employs a sustained guitar riff and cascading keyboard that heightens the tinge of melancholy in Murphy’s vocal inflection. The latter seems to be operating in the wee hours of the morning, with the music creating a bleary-eyed soundtrack for potentially regrettable choices: “Somebody’s texting me to be my girl.”
The album’s core is its most engaging, beginning with the remarkably placid vibe of “I Can Change” before changing direction with the industry kiss-off “You Wanted a Hit” and “Pow Pow” – clearly a riotous jam designed for hip-shaking. Murphy can still be impossibly snide (“You wanted a hit / well maybe we don’t do hits”) and comically absurd (“The return of the police / pow pow / the return of the police”), but it’s a track like “I Can Change” that really shows that this is one aging hipster who is ready to put on the proverbial brakes. The theme of home is a prominent one on This Is Happening, and for every brash sentiment tossed out, there’s another – like on the yearning “All I Want” – that suggests it might be time to call it quits: “From now one let’s do it different / cause I just want what I want / take me home.”
Some will continue to take umbrage with LCD’s application of influences (you are admittedly likely to encounter Eno, Kraftwerk, and The Talking Heads at some point on this record), but is there a musician out there who doesn’t make art with their role models in mind? The ghosts of some of the greats are there for sure, but in the end, This Is Happening sounds like no one except LCD Soundsystem. When – or perhaps, if – another act comes along that shows off such an innate conceptualization of how to go about balancing lyrical depth with mindless dance floor bliss, we’ll all be saying that they’re ripping off James Murphy.