Fewer 808s, More Heartbreak: LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening

On James Murphy's sardonically devastating new record

Being misunderstood is a career hazard when your career involves being the frontman and principal songwriter for LCD Soundsystem. But even James Murphy seemed taken aback when, a week after the Internet debut of "Drunk Girls"—the first single off his band's third and supposedly final LP, This Is Happening—a "fan"-made video for the song appeared on YouTube. It was not kind: To the bounding strains of what had been originally conceived as an ironic, self-deprecating "White Light/White Heat" homage, photographs of young women slowly rotated—passed out, partially clothed, vomiting, uniformly compromised. "Can someone just erase that thing?" a dejected Murphy pleaded on his website. "It makes me kind of sick."

YouTube and their lawyers eventually obliged, and—LCD being LCD—Spike Jonze stepped in to direct the song's official, non-objectifying video. But Murphy, whose elect status in this city was cemented by writing perhaps the single finest depiction of what it was like to be youngish in New York in the first decade of the 21st century—2007's "All My Friends"—found himself in an unfamiliar position. Much was made of the fact that he recently turned 40: One site dubbed him "Creepy Uncle New York." The man who had spent most of the aughts explaining his generation to itself went to L.A. to make a record, and returned to find the kids yet again coming up from behind.

How convenient. On 2002's "Losing My Edge," Murphy famously listed his record collection as a bulwark against irrelevance, and in doing so, became himself a kind of geographical/generational shorthand. This not totally enviable burden, neatly taken up on 2007's Sound of Silver, a record sung almost entirely in the first person plural, is set pointedly aside on This Is Happening. What "Drunk Girls" actually is, it turns out, is an apologia: "Just 'cause I'm shallow doesn't mean that I'm heartless," Murphy sings. "Just 'cause I'm heartless doesn't mean that I'm mean."

The song, like the rest of the record, was recorded in an L.A. mansion owned by Rick Rubin; Murphy and his bandmates dubbed it "The Manshun," dressed all in white, and retained the services of a live-in chef. "Drunk Girls," he explained to Pitchfork, is "about drunk people and fun things and the fact that all of the boys of the L.A. mansion we recorded at were called 'the girls' by our chef. We were the ladies of the mansion." Videos from that time period show the broad-shouldered ringleader bobbing around in a pool, talking about his feelings. This Is Happening is largely the sound of Murphy disappearing back into a world of his own making.

What else is there to do when you've had your heart broken? As much as their frontman likes to talk about his affinity for "dumb body music," as he put it in the Guardian, LCD Soundsystem's truly indelible stuff has always been their most muted, wounded, and acid. (Though let no one say This Is Happening's twin titans of mumbling inarticulateness, "One Touch" and "Pow Pow"—the latter of which ventures far enough afield to throw a stray shot at our own Michael Musto—are anything but ecstatically effective paeans to saying nothing in particular.) On everything from "Losing My Edge" to Sound of Silver's "Someone Great" and "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," Murphy has been at his best when he has had a target to aim for, and whoever walked out on him during the writing of This Is Happening certainly provided that. What's "body music," anyway? "Tell me a line, make it easy for me," he pleads on "I Can Change." "Open your arms, dance with me until I feel all right."

About that girl. By my count, she's the explicit subject of four out of nine songs here, and likely the inspiration for all of them—label kiss-off and orthodox dance-floor workout "You Wanted a Hit," for instance, seems to dovetail nicely with Murphy's claims to be done with the band after this record ("I don't know if EMI would put another record out by us," he has said), and perhaps now we know the reason why. "You wanted the time, but maybe I can't do time," he sings. "Oh, we both know that's an awful line/But it doesn't make it wrong."

Time to the tune of years and years on tour, on the road and out of the house. On "All I Want," which halfheartedly cloaks some of the most bitter and unadorned lyrics you'll ever hear in a rock song with a mournfully direct guitar lift from David Bowie's "Heroes," Murphy lays it out. You "wait for the day you come home," you "look for the girl who has put up with all of your shit," but it's too late: "You learn in your bed you've been gone for too long/So you put in the time, but it's too late to make it strong." (That word "time" again.) Even "Dance Yrself Clean," This Is Happening's sardonic, trash-talking opener, morphs, right around the moment the titanic live drums kick in, into a seemingly off-topic, howling reconciliation fantasy: "Break me into bigger pieces, so some of me is home with you." ("Home"—another word that's all over this record.)

Weirdly, neither of these two songs contains Happening's most abject moment. That'd be the aforementioned "I Can Change," on which album-wide production lodestar Brian Eno gets a spooky Thomas Dolby update, a bit of self-mockery on Murphy's part that doesn't even begin to obscure how fucking awful the feeling he's describing here really is. The knock on Murphy these days is that he's too hard on people, and maybe a bit unmindful of that ambient adolescent need that explains all the bad decisions and betrayals past LCD Soundsystem songs have chronicled in such appalling and extensive detail. But "I Can Change" is just about the most blunt depiction of that condition ever put to tape. "I can change," he swears, "If it helps you fall in love." Never has Murphy's extraordinary ability to see himself as if from the outside of the situation he's describing made for such a self-lacerating moment: "Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry/And this is coming from me."

This Is Happening is about the way the things you love can ruin your life. It's about getting what you want and not wanting it anymore. And it's about how the salvation that Murphy has chased across dance floors through three records and nearly 30 years of being in bands can't really ever be found on a stage, no matter how hard you look for it or try to will it into existence. "Love and rock are fickle things," Murphy sings on "Home," the sigh of a song that ends This Is Happening and maybe the entire LCD Soundsystem project along with it. "And you know it." Maybe not before. But we do now.

zbaron@villagevoice.com

LCD Soundsystem play Terminal 5 May 20–23

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