Grow Up Like a Rock Star

LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy sheds his cool and unites the Guitar Hero III–addled masses

Although critics didn't exactly stump for rock stars, the craving is still there. There was quite a bit of hubbub around Magic, but we weren't excited about what was on the new Bruce Springsteen record (#9), just that a new Bruce Springsteen record existed. And all those times we compared glock-rocking geeks Arcade Fire to the Boss? We were more or less just projecting our secret dreams onto their black mirror. No, our best hope for a Real-Life Rock Star in 2008 is Pazz and Jop's big winner, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. Yes, the guy who told the Voice last year, "I'm 37 years old. I'm 220 pounds. I'm a producer. I've got about as much likelihood of being a fucking frontman as Christopher Cross, for fuck's sake. I should have my ass wiped off the stage every night."

When he surfaced in 2002, Murphy was a doughy, stubbly, marble-mouthed, record-shopping anti-star. Lyrics that would've been joyous dance-rock slogans spiraling towards the heavens in the mouths of Sly Stone or the Rapture were given a sarcastic poker face, assassinated with an exhausted drawl ("Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!") or trickled out with a sad mumble ("There's too much love") or strangled to death with jagged-little-PiL contempt ("Your favorite band helps you sa-leep"). But Murphy has deaded the deadpan on Sound of Silver, especially the epochal "All My Friends," road-mapping the existential crises everyone experiences as they lumber from young-adult to adult-adult. While his debut single, "Losing My Edge," played the same subject for sardonic yuks (is a man not judged by the number of This Heat records in his DJ bag?), now Murphy's dead-serious and sincere and contemplative. And—surprise!—he's really connecting with people who didn't recognize half the bands he was busy name-checking. He's become the hyper-aware voice of a hyper-aware generation who'd never get within a 100-mile radius of the phrase "Voice of a Generation."

Here's how it starts: Although "Losing My Edge" was a caricature, it was still essentially a boast, a press release with a beat that let everyone know Murphy was hipper than your average, a dude into the Fire Engines and Section 25 when all the "dance-punk!" articles of the time were still hung up on Gang of Four. Older and wiser, he's long past trying to get scene points by whipping out his big 12-inchers. On Silver, seasoned DJ Murphy just opens his heart (and maybe his id), spinning the big records that everyone knows and loves (though in this case, "everyone" still means "modern-rock fans age 18 to 45"). It's that moment at the party where people stop fighting over the stereo and realize that everyone will dance to "Billie Jean." The vocals on "Get Innocuous!" lurch just like Bowie's on "Sound and Vision," "Someone Great" chugs forward like New Order's "Temptation," and "North American Scum" directly lifts Pete Shelley's "Homosapien," a song in heavy rotation on VH1 Classic as we speak. Indie-rock fans favor Berlin-era Bowie, New Order, and Shelley because their introverted poses personify the non-rock attitude. But this is really just a rock-star move on Murphy's part: Know your audience, play the hits.

No longer a slave to his quotey-fingered past
photo: Ruvan Wijesooriya
No longer a slave to his quotey-fingered past

In a symbolic two-minute crescendo, Silver opens with a Casio-cute pulse that dryly mimics the original boom-bip-bip-bip of "Losing My Edge," but then slowly grows lusher, smarter, fuller: Murphy's grown up, and we're expected to follow. He's an adult who's pretty much done thinking about petty shit like scene politics (except on the ecstatic/vicious "Watch the Tapes"). There's a new party crew in New York called DJs Are Not RockStars, and you can be damn sure Murphy doesn't care whether or not that statement is true, or even who the hell these people are. Murphy's thinking about bigger things—his place as a New Yorker, his place as an American, his place as someone who experiences loss, his place as an adult who knows it's silly to pine for the "feelings of a real live emotional teenager." His third album will probably get downright metaphysical.

Distancing himself from his quotey-fingered past, Murphy has thrown out all his vocal defense mechanisms: his intentional tunelessness, his Mark E. Smith howls, his droll monotone. A grown-ass man had better act like one, and while his newly assured voice doesn't exactly hit all the right notes on the heartbreaking "Someone Great," it's not for lack of trying. "Someone Great" is a six-minute song about getting a phone call—probably about the end of a relationship, vivid enough to be about the death of a loved one. Murphy's delicate but confident warble has to balance a crushing emotional blow with the mature, responsible man who still has deadlines to meet and coffee to drink. By album closer "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," he's literally crooning.

And, of course, there's "All My Friends." Taken at surface level, it's wistful, melancholy, slow-churning—essentially a power ballad, Nickelback's "Photograph" for people who can't remember the last time they looked at a photo that wasn't on Flickr. But dig deeper and "Friends" is a widescreen, decade-long epic about post-postcollegiate uncertainty, working your way into adulthood by tripping balls or tripping over your shoes: "Bob Dylan's Dream" for people who may have once paid money for grunge clothes or rave drugs. It's sincere, grown-up rock music for sincere, grown-up folk, people who no longer "set controls for the heart of the sun." Luckily for the people still worried about their edge, "All My Friends" had the cold heartbleep of indie-rock (Philip Glass piano lines, post-punk icepick grooves), but enough juice to also win the hearts of kids who treat frosty detachment and expressionlessness as their anti-emotional core: the folks who loved Darjeeling Limited, who bought the British version of The Office on DVD, who laughed along to the non-jokes on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, who got goosebumps over Daft Punk's light show and glowing robot suits. But everything about Murphy's voice on Sound of Silver—everything sung, spoke, or shouted—was just human, after all. Or only rock 'n' roll. But we liked it.

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