LCD Soundsystem have really tested the boundaries of the break-up and reunion cycle. Upon the announcement of their disbandment in early 2011, the iconic dance-punk troupe seemed to be striving for a true blue exit in a blaze of glory, announcing one final hurrah in the form of a send-off show at Madison Square Garden. With the publicity for this last concert practically breaking the Internet during both pre-sales and official ticket sales, to the extent that the collective unveiled another four warm-up gigs at Terminal 5 in New York in the run-up to the Madison Square Garden date, it seemed as if LCD Soundsystem wanted to reward their relentlessly loyal fanbase with a fittingly extravagant goodbye for a fleeting but hugely successful run at the vanguard of electronic rock during the 2000s. On the fateful day of the group’s victory lap at Madison Square Garden on the 2nd of April, 2011, LCD Soundsystem put on their longest concert ever, clocking in at over three hours, featuring a guest appearance from fellow cutting edge rockers Arcade Fire, which was subsequently released as a five-disc vinyl boxset entitled the last goodbye: lcd soundsystem live at madison square garden, in coincidence with a documentary called Shut Up and Play the Hits that was released to chronicle the group’s final days. Indeed, LCD Soundsystem’s send-off was lavish to say the least — and some may even say spendthrift, given that the group’s frontman and mastermind, James Murphy, has recently claimed that this farewell extravaganza left himself and his bandmates out of pocket — with their Madison Square Garden show almost rivalling The Last Waltz, the final concert appearance from venerable roots rock outfit The Band at San Fransisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day of 1976. As such, with LCD Soundsystem announcing their reunion just over four years following their fated farewell performance, with a non-album single called Christmas Will Break Your Heart that was released on Christmas Eve of 2015, Murphy et al. were really pushing what was considered an acceptable amount of time to wait until making a comeback.
Although fans of the band, needless to say, were ecstatic at first, more recently, the promotion cycle for LCD Soundsystem’s fully-fledged comeback album, american dream, has seen some less positive journalistic coverage of Murphy and his colleagues, with certain music publications claiming that the group’s initial termination was merely a stunt pulled off to sell tickets and ensure an ample amount of hype upon their eventual return to the limelight. Whilst I personally remain sceptical of such cynical accusations, especially assuming that Murphy’s claim that the Madison Square Garden gig procured an overall loss for the group is true, leaving just over four years between breaking up and reforming is such a short period of time that raising a few eyebrows was inevitable. Perhaps it’s a product of music in modern times, with everything happening at lightening speed to meet the demands of the short attention spans of the Internet age, but Murphy’s explanation that the disbandment came about out of the fear that, following their three widely revered records, subsequent output from LCD Soundsystem would begin to gradually decline in quality and the group would gradually decline in relevance is an understandable one. This being said, whilst wanting to end a band’s lifespan at the height of their critical and commercial success is a respectable sentiment, it gives rise to certain expectations surrounding any comeback material from the artist and, in the case of LCD Soundsystem, it’s unfortunate that their return to eminence within the world of electronic music should be marked by the most uninspired release of their career. Across american dream, it seems as if all the most integral components of the band’s sound appear in a notably flatter and more muted fashion that doesn’t play to their strengths for the most part. The grooves are more pedestrian, the synth tones seldom strike the same vibrancy of the outfit’s prime material and Murphy’s nerdy music references and political commentary are more superficial and less sharp, making for a second-rate incarnation of LCD Soundsystem’s usual blueprint. Then again, such general criticisms thankfully only apply to particular portions of the album, with there being occasional sparks of creativity tucked away in some of the deeper cuts, but even still, the band’s overall vision on american dream seems only semi-inspired at the best of times, with the worst moments across the record doing little to save this release from being thrown onto the pile of underwhelming comeback albums to have been released in the past few years.
Up until this point, each LCD Soundsystem project has been built on a similar sonic substructure that allows for the anthemic expanse of their triumphant, indie electronic epics and the more understated and refined progressions of their slow-burning ballads, and what’s perhaps most perplexing about american dream is that all of these tell-tale signs of a great record from the group seem to be here. The fact, therefore, that the end result is so deficient in the same suave spirit of the band’s past output proves somewhat thorny to explain or even begin to untangle. Whilst much of this could be chalked up to the production and overall sound of the album, the compositional prowess at play throughout the tracklisting seems to also act as a significant hindrance to the degree to which many of the pieces across american dream can truly flourish into the impressive exhibitions of full-blooded electronica that they maybe could have been. Generally speaking, LCD Soundsystem seem more content with playing towards their comfort zone on their latest record, rather than venturing out into riskier territory with the same spunk that was on display across their previous albums. Perhaps this was done in the hope of rekindling similar tones to those featured on the outfit’s prime output, but the result sees all too many of the songs from american dream grow stagnant, with the overall sound of the album being nowhere near strong enough to entirely compensate for weak songwriting, especially with the tracklisting’s 10 cuts running at around 69 minutes in total. oh baby, for instance, is not all that different in principle from other tracks to have opened previous LCD Soundsystem projects, such as Get Innocuous! from Sound of Silver, with the metallic pounding of the percussion that introduces the song eventually being accompanied by a fat, wobbly synth bass and Murphy’s muted moans. However, a track like Get Innocuous! works so well as an opener due to the nuanced tension with which it heralds in the measured increase in the song’s timbre, with the tone of its underlying, hypnotic bass groove gradually mutating to suit the broader swells in the instrumentation. In the case of oh baby, however, at the best of times, mere fragments of this polished compositional approach remain, with the overall progression of this song running less smoothly and more stiltedly, with each introduction of a new component on top of the piece’s fundamental, unbroken pulse simply adding to the soundscape without necessarily benefiting the surrounding instrumentation. Most noticeably, the pairing of the primary bass melody with some sparkling lead synths creates a somewhat clunky tonal combination, which is only exacerbated by the ambient hums and droning buzzes that line the rest of the mix at times. This is wherein the dearth of both potent melodic tones and solid songwriting begin to overlap and entangle, in a way that only works to worsen one another’s shortcomings, with LCD Soundsystem’s heightened reliance on dry drones and flat ambience across american dream emphasising the stiff structures of songs such as oh baby, as well as the title track and black screen. Likewise, the latent atmospheres that line many of these compositions simply don’t seem to be blended all that well into the grander soundscapes, especially when they begin to pick up more inherently contrasting tones, leading to the lower, upper and mid-range frequencies of certain cuts coming across not as complementary to one another, but compartmentalised from one another. As a result, pairings of tones that are even slightly discordant are compounded far more than they need to be, with the abrasive, squealing synth on i used to clashing in a rather disagreeable manner with the deeper and more nocturnal propulsion of the hollow drumming and driving bass groove, whilst the glistening, cascading leads of the title track overpower and swallow up the buzzing synth bass and sparse, plopping percussion. Thankfully, however, there are certain songs in the tracklisting with a more defined purpose, both from a compositional perspective and in terms of the consistency of the timbre throughout the track, with the interpolations of funk-leaning ingredients into the driving, danceable post-punk of change yr mind being a prime example. From the clicking, percussive guitar work to the brief bursts of meandering bass licks to the syncopation of the pattering hand percussion, the groove of change yr mind is made so potent courtesy of how well it remains wound in a distinctive funk sound that is coupled seamlessly with LCD Soundsystem’s usual, propulsive dance-punk. Meanwhile, emotional haircut picks up a great deal of momentum thanks to the plucky synth stabs that accent the final beat of the pounding drum and bass pattern, which is made all the more forceful with the addition of the call-and-response group vocals that yell out the song title during the verses. Even some of the cuts that undoubtedly stray dangerously close to overstaying their welcome brandish some well-worked sounds and melodic tones that help give the listener something to grapple with besides just as a throbbing groove, such as the crisp guitar tinkering on call the police or the intertwining of Murphy’s sombre vocals and the winding, hollow synth leads on black screen. With so many tracks across american dream falling short on the compositional front, however, there’s only so much that some striking melodic tones can do to tide over the shortfalls in the songwriting throughout the tracklisting.
Just as the overall sonic quality of american dream sees LCD Soundsystem retreading familiar pre-disbandment territory, James Murphy’s musings on coming of age, which remain wrapped in eclectic references to music culture and generational political commentary, also evoke the same sentiments of the band’s prime material, albeit with the added retrospect of the happenings in the musical and political worlds during their time away from the limelight. This newfound dimension of hindsight on events that occurred during LCD Soundsystem’s hiatus makes for some incredibly compelling moments at times, such as when Murphy addresses the death of his close companion David Bowie on black screen, with the angle of friendship that is assumed making for an exceptionally winsome homage to the pop icon, as the singer cherishes the small details of their relationship, such as long chains of e-mails and their times having gone out for dinner. Similarly, the fact that Murphy should choose to address the controversy surrounding LCD Soundsystem’s break-up and subsequent reformation wholly head-on on change yr mind injects even more urgency into what is already one of the most propulsive pieces on the album, whilst the frontman comes through with some of his wittiest one-liners too, with lyrics like, “I have a penny for your thoughts / If you could keep them to yourself”. Such instances of endearment in Murphy’s lyrical endeavours across american dream, however, are more so the exception than the rule, with the musician, for the most part, tackling many of the same themes as those which have long since been firmly rooted within LCD Soundsystem’s stylings, but without the same shrewd self-awareness and singular insight of the group’s previous projects. In fact, if anything, songs such as call the police and the record’s title track seem oddly detached from the core demographic towards which Murphy tends to appeal with his deftness for finding through-lines between the music, politics and semi-existentialist philosophies of ageing and coming to terms with past regrets. The extent to which the frontman comments on the ills of both those amongst the corrupted upper echelons of society’s hierarchy and the politically-correct youth, who are too distracted by insignificant matters of offence to focus their efforts on more important issues, seems to be attempting a similar degree of comprehensive social commentary to the thematic arc of Father John Misty’s latest album, Pure Comedy. However, whereas the potency of Josh Tillman’s analysis comes from a deeply ingrained understanding of both extremes that comprise the huge chasm that exists in American politics right now, the lack of depth in Murphy’s lyrics gives rise to a sense of distance and detachment from these issues, with the singer seemingly commenting as an outsider, even though this was not likely his intention. Ultimately, it would seem that detachment, whether it be from any semblance of empathy on the album’s title track or from any sense of conceptual purpose on how do you sleep?, is the inadvertent force that undercuts many of Murphy’s lyrical undertakings across american dream in an oddly out-of-character fashion, with the end product falling massively short of the sharpness and urgency that the singer usually captures in his music-related musings on life’s purpose.
Overall, it would seem that, in attempting to recapture much of the core appeal of the three records released during their original run on american dream, LCD Soundsystem have proven themselves to have lost that same unflinching flair for fashioning spellbinding, grandiose grooves and providing piquant, acute commentary on the nature of human existence, wrapped within sharp musical references, in their time away from the studio. Undoubtedly, LCD Soundsystem are at their best when they hone in on a specific stylistic underpinning in their compositions, or when Murphy tackles the cruel truths of life with the same compelling and level-headed wit of the band’s earlier output, but these moments are overshadowed by the deficiencies in the songwriting and the detachment in Murphy’s lyrics across much of the rest of the record. Given that the group’s break-up supposedly came about as to prevent any mediocre releases before they occurred, the fact that their resurrection has yielded a record that, compared to their past efforts, is far less inspired and inventive, only pushes american dream further towards the pile of disappointing comeback albums from the past couple of years. Truth be told, the album is by no means bad, rather its worst moments merely teeter towards a degree of mediocrity that one would not expect to hear from a band who have proven to be so integral to the development of more modern and eclectic strands of electronic rock. Nonetheless, for a band of such stature, and considering the context in which it was released, american dream seems far too scarce of the most intrinsic tenets of LCD Soundsystem’s appeal to warrant such a sweeping return to the limelight after such a short period of time.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10