This Is Happening: Review

In some ways, it feels kind of pointless to add to the reviews of LCD Soundsystem’s new album. This Is Happening only officially came out two weeks ago, but we live in an age of Internet leaks, so two weeks after an album’s release date is practically an eternity—it’s more than enough time for the world to reach a consensus. The consensus for this album seems to be: It’s great. The Wikipedia entry for the album already says that it received “universal acclaim,” so I guess any further words are irrelevant.

It’s not like I disagree—This Is Happening is a great album that should satisfy the many LCD Soundsystem fans who anxiously awaited it. And if, as James Murphy has said, this is the last LCD Soundsystem album we ever get, then fans don’t have any right to complain: Few acts would have had a more successful career.

The worst thing I can really say about This Is Happening is that it peaks too early: The first track, “Dance Yrself Clean,” is the best one on the album. It illustrates how Murphy can gradually add layer after layer to song and build an entire sonic experience. Starting off with just a simple, soft drumbeat, the song sounds like a laidback, relaxed complaint. Murphy almost whispers the vocals at first—“Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk / and living proof that sometimes friends are mean.” Slowly, and without even realizing it, the song adds elements and three minutes in a heavy synth beat turns the song into such a rocking anthem that Murphy has to yell over the noise. The song is so complex that after dozens of listens I’ve finally just concluded that there is no way to listen to it without adjusting the volume midway through.

That song leads into “Drunk Girls,” the first single from the album. This radio-friendly song is infectious as hell, but almost uncomfortably catchy for an LCD song. Murphy’s observations about drunk girls range from the aggrieved (“Drunk girls cause a couple of heart attacks”) to the caustic (“Drunk girls are boringly wild”) to the philosophical (“Drunk girls wait an hour to pee”), but really the song is more of an ode than anything else. It doesn’t have the depth of LCD’s best songs, but it’s more immediately fun.

Following this is “One Touch,” the kind of LCD Soundsystem song that makes me feel nervous. The fast-paced, eerie sound of the song evokes the feelings of inferiority (“I don’t see how we could be pleased with this”) and inadequacy (“One touch is never enough”) that Murphy seems to want.

“All I Want” sounds more like a traditional rock song than I’ve come to expect from LCD Soundsystem. Even Murphy’s vocals transition from the enhanced bass of “One Touch” and the yelling of “Drunk Girls” to more of a rock frontman’s croon. But the song doesn’t sound like anything generic—the looping guitars and ethereal vocals create the rich, haunting sound of LCD Soundsystem’s best songs. Of all the songs on the new album, this is probably the most rewarding of multiple listens.

The anchor song—the fifth on the nine-track album, occupying the same spot “All My Friends” did on Sound of Silver—is “I Can Change,” a song that shows how much Murphy can do with the repetition of a simple musical phrase, or even a single note held for a few seconds. “I Can Change” also features one of the best jokes on the album: “Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry / And this is coming from me.”

The highlight of the album’s second half is “You Wanted a Hit,” the longest song on the album and probably the best after the opening track. Beginning and ending with a quiet, sparse, spectral arrangement that drops out once the bass kicks in, the song seems at first like an affront to A&R men (which is pretty odd, since Murphy runs his own label). In reality, though, “You Wanted a Hit” is really about people who care more about appearances than reality: “I guess you’re used to liars saying what they want.” It also rocks.

None of the last third of the album attains the greatness of the first six tracks (at least, they haven’t won me over yet—the album just came out two weeks ago). “Pow Pow,” with the repeated refrain “There’s advantages to both,” is about perspective or, possibly, duality. Murphy hardly bothers singing at all on this one—he mostly just speaks jokes over the beat: “We have a black president and you do not, so shut up.”

“Somebody’s Calling Me” slows the album down, with a deliberate, leaden beat. Of course, it still maintains the layered complexity of the rest of the album, just without the same urgency. The last track, “Home,” ends the album on a much different note than “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” ended the last one. “Home” gradually picks the pace up after the slow “Somebody’s Calling Me” and ends the album on a—dare I say it—happy note. “Shut the door on terrible times,” is kind of optimistic, right?

Overall, This Is Happening is, as everyone seems to have decided, a great album and probably the current frontrunner for the best album of 2010 (until The Suburbs comes out in August, at least). I don’t know if it’s as good as Sound of Silver, but comparisons are odious; this album is great on its own and would be well-received even if LCD Soundsystem weren’t already a critical darling. LCD Soundsystem makes songs that are dense and complex—they don’t sound like anything else in the world and they are really fun, and that’s the most you can ask from an artist.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on June 1, 2010 at 10:14 PM

    “LCD Soundsystem makes songs that are dense and complex—they don’t sound like anything else in the world and they are really fun, and that’s the most you can ask from an artist.”

    I disagree with this point as stated, but for very good (if somewhat scattered) reasons ultimately agree with the conclusion.

    In many ways, I think LCD Soundsystem produces music is that more heavily influenced than few other acts. And when I write “influenced,” the distinction from “derived” should be obvious. You hear Eno on a couple of tracks (and probably comparatively minor elements on more), there are signs of Bowie on others. “One Touch” sort of reminds me of a Kraftwerk song. And of course, “Somebody’s Calling Me” is Iggy Pop’s “Trainspotting”…Considering Murphy’s diverse musical appetite, there could be any number of other artists you could include….Far from shamelessly borrowing from these artists, we see them incorporated in any number of fascinating ways…You see this done probably better than anyone else could, which is one of the major reasons that the music is still unlike anything else…

    In a sense, a lot of LCD Soundsystem’s music seems to be “about” other music, producing great art that also seems to venture into musical commentary (and this sort of has an effortless feel to it)…

    Also, I love Murphy as a lyricist. I don’t know anyone who can meld the simple and the profound as well as he can*

    *I remember reading an interview where he described the frustrating experience of trying to write for Britney Spears. I mean, what was the most profound thing she ever sang? “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman”? I would LOVE to see what some of his suggestions for her were…

    All in all, the fact that James Murphy is so transparent regarding his influences really is to his credit…He celebrates this, and in the process, creates something great…

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on June 2, 2010 at 1:16 AM

      Yeah, you’re exactly right about the distinction between “influenced” and “derived,” and it’s something I didn’t really capture with the “don’t sound like anything else in the world” line. Nevertheless, LCD songs never sound imitative. For example, after you pointed out the similarity (one which I completely missed), I went back and listened to “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop. And even though the beat is almost exactly the same, “Somebody’s Calling Me” still sounds different somehow. Basically it’s that Murphy is a great builder of songs, and even though the pieces are often found objects and melodies he seems to have picked up from his encyclopedic knowledge of music history, the end results always sound different.

      Reply

  2. […] Here’s an interview with James Murphy, whose album John S reviewed and loved. […]

    Reply

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