LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream: A Triumphant Call to Reawaken
There haven’t been many critiques vocalized about LCD Soundsystem’s magnificent American Dream. Those that have risen have claimed a) its album art is stupid and b) it ruined the sanctity of the band’s perfect, documentary/concert-fueled disbanding in 2011. Regarding the former, the album’s cover features the band and album name in a tight, black, sans-serif font at the foreground of a sun exuding bright rays at the center of a lightly-cloudy blue sky. Some have interpreted the cover as a reference to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, whose cover features a similar sky, albeit with no sun in sight. The interpretation grounds itself on the fact that during an interview about dealing with failure, LCD frontman James Murphy spoke specifically of the novel’s impact on his life at age 26, pre-LCD. “It really floored me. It really depressed me,” Murphy said of reading the text, for he realized, “If I started right now, I wouldn’t get it done in time, to write something like that by the time I was his age and have it come out. It’s not possible.” Reading the book seems to have marked a low-point in Murphy’s life from which the seeds of the creative wellspring that yielded LCD Soundsystem began to grow. It’s no surprise, then, that American Dream features a myriad of crossovers in thematic content: isolation, alienation, cultural fatigue, inner emptiness, search for meaning, deep vision into contemporary America, and a beautiful balance of sadness and optimistic embrace of the enduring human spirit. Whether it filtered through Murphy consciously or unconsciously, there can be no doubting the novel’s influence.
Regarding the second critique, I have tried to understand how fans could become upset at a band they love for making new music. I suppose these fans had built up a vision in their minds that established the band as an infallible and self-contained entity perfect unto itself. I guess they didn’t want this worldview disrupted. Still, I can’t imagine that should they open their ears to American Dream’s one hour and eight minute journey through regret and redemption, isolation and anger, confusion and forgiveness, loss and celebration, they would feel anything less than a beautiful contemporary experience of the heart’s triumph over doubt and misdirection.
But then again, maybe I’m in no position to critique these fans’ response. I joined the LCD party quite late—2013, in fact, when a good friend introduced me to Sound of Silver and I felt my mind expanding in much the way it did during particularly delightful segments of Infinite Jest. Hearing “Someone Great” for the first time on a Pittsburgh bus felt like a revelation. The song strikes such an amazing juxtaposition between exuberant, life-affirming rhythms and sad, despairing lyrics, playing with opposites in some postmodern, post-structuralist fashion revealing innate tension of the heart. Ever since that experience, I have returned to LCD Soundsystem’s discography countless times, and now, after at least six close listens to American Dream, I am confident it is just as good or better than any of their previous three albums as a whole.
As with any LCD album, it would be impossible to ascribe an exact ‘feel’ that runs through the album. Each sprawling track is an entirely distinct dynamic thrill ride through unpredictable and ever-changing patterns of percussion, electronics, lyrical content, and sounds I’ve never heard before. “oh baby” invites the listener like a lullaby, creating a delicate atmosphere that shimmers amidst the album’s opening lines, “Oh baby… you’re having a bad dream…” A bad dream? This ‘American Dream’? This 2017 landscape of political chaos and existential confusion, of addiction and racism and sexism and crime and suffering? Yeah, sounds like a pretty bad dream. But bad dreams are impermanent, and impermanence is one of American Dream’s main themes. In the wake of “oh baby”, the band takes us into “other voices”, where, far from the melodic control of “oh baby”, Murphy enters his characteristically jagged, ironic vocal patterns that gave songs like “Losing My Edge” and “Pow Pow” such unique charm. The song feels like an awakening from the slumber of “oh baby”, with darker lyrics meandering through considerations of time’s continual fluctuation, connecting its impermanence to its power over our lives. How do we respond? Well, the ‘you’ the song addresses—and it seems each song addresses a slightly different ‘you’—wears “tin foil hats” to keep out “other voices”. This ‘you’ is a mindless pushover to passionate people, a helpless baby amidst a confusing reality. Yet no attempt to insulate him/herself from reality will overcome the powers of impermanence beyond his or her control.
Is Murphy distinct from this trend of mindlessness? Of refusing to recognize difficult truths before our eyes? Of course not. In the very next song, “i used to”, he repeats, “I’m still trying to wake up,” in a vulnerable falsetto. It’s an ongoing process, waking up from this bad dream, returning to the enduring place where “love lies patiently.” Amid that process arise all the regrets, all the memories of times that were perfect, the yearning for times of no concern. “I used to dance alone of my own volition… So where’d you go?” Murphy cries. Each song expresses a different emotion and perspective on the state of affairs of mind and world in this 2017 moment. As was reflected in Infinite Jest in 1996, lots of the reality is really sad.
The sadness and the regret deepen together. “I’ve just got nothing left to say,” Murphy bemoans amidst the dissonant guitars of “change yr mind”. The line echoes his reluctance to resurrect the band, a reluctance that changed upon the advice of the late David Bowie, whom Murphy references on “black screen” as “between a friend and a father.” Murphy’s doubts speak through the lyrics. “I’m not dangerous now/The way I used to be once/I’m just too old for it now.” Bongo beats pan left to right as electric guitars shoot out the right speaker, then the left, then the right, then the left like faulty electrical currents zapping Murphy’s monotone self-loathing. It’s as if Murphy, like Wallace, is communicating that “brain voice” that we all experience. These crippling thoughts, which we keep between ourselves and our therapists—they burden us all, don’t they? Is there a way out of their all-encompassing magnitude? According to “change yr mind”, there is. Like a redemptive insight, the song builds into a threshold-crossing climax as Murphy’s layered voice harmonizes, “If you don’t like what it feels like/It could be over if you change your mind/You can change your mind…” In spite of all the mechanisms in place to propel our self-defeating thoughts, we, the American dreamers, are not prisoners to our perceptions. Always we have the power to change our minds.
Then like the genesis of an ancient ritual come rolling tribal drums of the standout track “how do you sleep?” It’s at least as layered and complex as any prior LCD track, channeling a distant mythological energy we have never heard from Murphy’s voice. (I instantly thought of Murphy channeling John Lennon’s intention to sound like the Dalai Lama calling from a mountaintop on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, later realizing the song’s title directly references an early Lennon solo track). “One step forward, and six steps back, and six steps back, and six steps back…” Murphy despairs. But those tribal drums! Those pounding electronic beats like stomping boots of the ether! How can one refrain from grooving? And the way the song just builds and builds around Murphy’s un-aged voice—it’s all happening! And it’s all so freaking great!
But then it’s not again. Then the challenges return, and we reenter the struggles of limitations and mortality. At the end of “tonite”, a song that deconstructs the recurring party-hardy content of pop music as a reaction against our inevitable deaths, we get a brief audio clip of Murphy, behind the scenes in the studio, saying, “That’s gonna have to be good enough. I can’t do this anymore. My brain won’t work.” Apparently Murphy told Bowie how uncomfortable the thought of returning made him. Bowie responded with a phrase echoed at the end of “other voices”, telling Murphy, “It should make you uncomfortable.”
Is Murphy taking himself too seriously? Some tracks suggest so, yet then we get “call the police,” where Murphy’s innocent voice humbly sings, “We all… we all… we all know this is nothing.” What is happening in the world? In this complex American dream? A whole lot of nothing? How ought we respond to today’s many contradictions? In “other voices”, Nancy Whang tells us, “This is what’s happening, and it’s freaking you out.” So we should be freaked out? But in “call the police,” Murphy repeats, “This is nothing… this is nowhere…” So we’re overthinking it all? Are we taking it too seriously or not seriously enough? How do we bring together this overwhelming array of seemingly aimless stimuli?
Each song provides a different perspective, a unique response. “call the police” builds upon a grinding bass to reach stadium-shaking, anthemic levels, igniting our energies through some skyward portal to fly into an unbiased dimension beyond all this crazy freaking news and technology and who the hell knows what else. But when the track ends, reality reenters on the longing, sorrowful waves of the title song, a high contender for becoming the album’s most enduring track. It’s a lullaby to the lost in 6/8 time, serving to guide them back to a place of warmth and hope and home through tension and despair brimming until boiling over with starlight as Murphy reassures, “That’s okay… that’s okay…” The song speaks to those Infinite Jest speaks to: the jaded seekers yearning for something more, seeking fulfillment in all the wrong places—the type who might “take acid and look in the mirror.” Murphy sings, “Oh the revolution was here/That would set you free from those bourgeoise.” We might read this as a reference to Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful campaign for presidency, which spoke so loudly to these jaded young adults who feel “drained and insane.” But the song reaches beyond this moment into a recurring trend of this American dream: that desire for recognition, for true freedom, for overcoming the antagonistic powers that keep us trapped in these cycles of yearning and emptiness. Whether you call it the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the 1% and the 99%, the Upper Party and the Proles, the distinction recurs culture to culture, political system to political system. There’s so much tension in the midst of these dualisms. How will it end? The closing line of “call the police” references an age-old Rousseau quote: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” Some sort of spiritual starvation is happening, and as these trends recur through the impermanence of time, so shall revolutions reenter to counterbalance the felt oppression, regardless of all these “triggered kids” and “fakers” and “questionable news” out to limit our worldview.
But the album continues. In the wake of the somber “american dream”, we get the exuberant energy of “emotional haircut,” whose primary goal seems to be to get people off their asses and dancing their faces off. It’s classic LCD Soundsystem, and it all filters toward a recognition of the heartbeat of this moment, the heartbeat we are sharing that revs and revs as the music builds and Murphy screams “Listen to it now!” over and over until abruptly concluding with, “It’s calming down.” Even amidst the madness and despair, we must find moments to just freaking jam.
And we arrive at the final track, “black screen,” the album’s twelve-minute, droning sendoff that strikes an emotional chord that grows in acuity with each listen. “black screen” does not evoke Wallace’s influence. Rather, it’s an elegy to the late Bowie, the friend/father whose example and wisdom granted Murphy the courage to bring American Dream to be. The track references email exchanges between the two, how Bowie’s quick responses to messages Murphy wrote “from the island” left him “feeling high”. Murphy admits regret for his unnecessarily-brief participation in recording percussion on Blackstar, Bowie’s final album, singing, “I had fear in the room/So I stopped turning up/My hands kept pushing down/In my pockets/I’m bad with people things/But I should have tried more.” It’s a beautiful elegy, and it’s deeply personal. Amidst the sprawling considerations of our contemporary American condition, the deepest sadness comes at the loss of those we love most. No matter how much we conceptualize impermanence and time’s ongoing flow, the sudden absence of our loved ones brings up all the regrets, yearnings, and contemplations that death has yielded since who knows how long ago.
Death is the eternal slumber, yet our contemplation of it awakens us to a broader perspective on life. “black screen” concludes the albums with five minutes of dark, droning tones, allowing us space to contemplate our response to all the emotions and contradictory impulses the album raises. Will we respond by falling back asleep? By reentering the bad dream? Or will we follow the call to wake up, regardless of how hard it is?
As Murphy realized through Bowie’s influence, it’s never too late to change our minds. We should feel uncomfortable. Only through discomfort can we open our hearts and bring about a better world, a real-deal American Dream. The responsibility falls into the hands of this ‘you’ to whom the album speaks. This ‘you’ is no longer people from Murphy’s generation. It’s the jaded young adults, the “Millennials” of whom I am part. Even if we feel powerless, even if we hit bottom, the time is ripe for waking up, witnessing our reality, and affecting the changes we know we must make. Otherwise, we write our history as victims of impermanence eternally asleep.
 All tracks are lower case. (Perhaps a comment on digitalized communication, as emphasized with the use of “yr” in the title of “change yr mind”?)
 Murphy has never hidden the extent of Bowie’s influence on him—just listen to the hovering guitar on “All I Want”, and you’ll hear an explicit homage to Bowie’s “Heroes”.
 The essential need to recognize our innate ability to change our minds and transgress the “default state” of egoism, isolation, and excessive critique of self and other is the central theme of DFW’s most consistent access point, his 2005 Commencement Speech to Kenyon College anthologized as This is Water.