Sunday, December 30, 2007

LCD Soundsystem

Last December I requested to write a piece on the DFA DJ’s tour for the magazine I was contributing to at the time, the recently out-of-print Stylus. DJ Shit Robot and LCD Soudsystem’s James Murphy were on the bill and, naturally, I wanted to vouch my journalistic credentials to get access. The Osaka show (where I now live) was their first stop in Japan before flying off to Nigata the next night, and then Tokyo the following night for their final two shows. I wasn’t overly familiar with James Murphy’s work, save for a few singles, and even less so with DJ Shit Robot’s. My desire to write a piece on the show sprang primarily from a ten-minute sequence on Murphy’s recently released, Nike Run commissioned soundtrack, 45:33.

I could neither articulate to myself nor to anyone else how immediately engrossing that sound was. A few of my other colleagues at Stylus had similar reactions, even suggesting that this was the stuff of myth making.

Up until then, James Murphy was essentially known for appropriating all of the heterodox and experimentally precocious musical signifiers from 1978-85; from proto-House and Disco, to Hardcore, New Wave, No Wave and Post-punk, among others. 2002’s “Losing My Edge” was his first salvo. In it Murphy ironically name-checks almost every important band that Brooklynite hipsters should both know and be embarrassed of knowing, parodying the self-defeating accumulation of musical arcana as an arms race—cool as a function of superior information. Murphy’s conceit made you re-think about the way you consumed music and the reasons with which you justified your tastes to your peers and yourself.

Indeed, Murphy seemed to be afflicted by what Harold Bloom once called the Anxiety of Influence, an artist relationship with his precursors and the extent to which their previous works inform and undermine the artist’s creative field of possibilities. Sure Murphy was making incredibly danceable and engaging music, but it wasn’t really his, and anything as obvious as a squall of discordant, atonal guitar bursts (Gang of Four) or wood blocks (Human League) or cowbells (Liquid Liquid) or galloping bass lines (Public Imagine Ltd.) could give away linage. Then Sound of Silver leaked.

I first listened to Sound of Silver on the night of December 5th 2006, a few days before the DFA DJ’s show and a good three months before it was officially scheduled for release. Opener “Get Innocuous” was a standout even though the drumbeat was a recycled base line and the digitally filtered high-hat was straight from “Losing My Edge”.

The song is muscular sounding, and once the back-beat kicks in and the dirge-like electronic vocals overwhelm, the sound gets even more muscular, twitchy and altogether ominous. But two other songs caught my attention, and haven’t let go since. That 10-minute sequence from 45:33 is refashioned into “Someone Great”, a six minute and twenty-six seconds minimalist electro masterpiece.

Descriptions always come up wanting, and near as I can tell so many different reprogrammed and synthesized elements complicate an accurate description of “Someone Great”. The most recognizable sound, though, is a pulsing, alarm-clock repetitive synth organ that expands and contracts in duration and intensity as the other elements build to stifled crescendos. Another synthesized element, wiry and at times wispy, as if it were a computerized saw, counterbalances a kick-drum, deeper, synth organ keyboards, sequenced, higher toned synth keyboard arrangements that seem to tumble forward in odd, choppy, and dissembling chord progressions only to nimbly reassembling in reverse. It’s inventively composed, forming a goose-stepping, highly synchronized rhythm section. Murphy’s falsetto, along with a glistening, pointillist glockenspiel, offers a wan though emotionally melodic surface to the whole production; it bounces and buzzes, expands and constricts, whirs and shivers and hops. It’s a bad heartbeat.

As hollow and easily constructed as the arrangements can appear, put together with Murphy’s lyrics they announce a deeper resonance. “The little things that made me nervous/Are gone in a moment/I miss the way we use to argue/Locked in a Basement”. Many have taken to reading “Someone Great” as tract on the loss of a family member or a loved one, yet these lyrics seem to suggest an alternative, more ambiguous reading. Seen another way, Murphy appears to be mourning the loss of possibility in a relationship: “There’s all the work that needs to be done/It’s late for revision/ There’s all the time and all the planning/And songs to be finished.” The repeated chorus “And it keeps coming”, concluded with “till it stops”, plays up to the monotony of adulthood and the daily minutiae that obscures the emotional or spiritual self.

But even the first reading, of familial loss, registers: “When Someone great is gone/We’re saved for the moment”. It’s a testament to how continually listenable “Someone Great” is that it can refract any number of different readings.

The second song, “All my friends”, is an even more powerful and overwhelmingly stunning work, a kaleidoscopic yarn of nostalgia, and James Murphy’s strongest piece of songwriting to date. A friend of mine described the start of the song as a “computer seizure”, an extended, unvarying cross-rhythm of two piano chords that sandwich a subtle three-note pivot. The piano cycle is either grating or hypnotic if left on its own, but the song begins to shimmers with creeping peripheral ephemera: a crash cymbal struck, a tinsel high-hat marches, rolling tom strikes, and the re-purposed base line and lead guitar rhythms from New Order’s Ceremony. Its components have the cumulative effect of movement, of physical momentum, which seems right given the lyrical strategy.

“That’s how it starts
”: As literary if literal a beginning as you’ll find in music, “All My Friends” tracks the ruminations of an aged hipster looking back; from the halcyon glow of newly formed friendships, all night larks, and the youthful ambition and exuberance of wanting to conquer the world, “Set Control for the heart of the Sun”; to the hard facts of life and adulthood changing priorities, “You spent the first five years trying get with the plan/And the next five years trying to be with your friends again”; to the eventual dénouement, “It comes apart”; and all it’s implications, “ Though when we’re running out of the drugs/And the conversation’s grinding away.”

It’s a an achingly pessimistic song about how distance, time and responsibilities make it impossible to ever have those wonderful moments with our friends again, and that each time we attempt to replicate them we are almost always acknowledging this fact. And then we get older, talking, more often than not, of old memories but never really, or ideally, making new ones.

James Murphy’s 37 years old, and the coda to “All My Friends”, as much sweet reminiscence as plaint, is about the anxiety of becoming an adult

Oh, if the trip and the plan come apart in your hand,
you look contorted on yourself your ridiculous prop.
You forgot what you meant when you read what you said,
and you always knew you were tired, but then,
where are your friends tonight?

Because I had recently moved to Japan and was away, really, truly away, from friends and family, starting what felt like an adult life, these two songs, particularly “All of My Friends”, resonated with me. It took over a year of continuously listening to these songs and going through the travails of being an expatriate – the initial cultural shock, the dizzying and astonishing aspect of a different type of living, the homesickness, the new friendships with likeminded expatriates – to truly understand just how much it resonated with my particular situation.

A few days later I would go to the DFA DJ’s show to meet and interview James Murphy. He was good natured and unpretentious. What initially struck me about him was how talkative and open he was. We talked about travel and German toilets. It would never occur to me to ask about those songs or even the album because it was all still metabolism in me. When he went on stage for his set after Shit Robot, I walked over to the bar to get a drink. Moments later Shit Robot, who’ s real name is Marcus Lambkin, joined me at the bar. I asked him what his plans were for the holidays and he told me that he was going back to Germany with his fiancé, who was there that night along with James Murphy’s wife.

I told him that Sound of Silver had leaked, that I had listened to it, and that I thought it was good. He nodded his head, not really responding. Not wanting to but really having to, I asked if he thought James would play anything off Sound of Silver. He said no. He said it was “very personal” to James, so I relented with that line of questioning. At the time I didn’t realize how much more personal it would become for me, too.

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