Alex Swhear comes out fighting.
It’s difficult to reverse a departure when it is executed with calculated melodrama (ask JAY Z, whose Kingdom Come was deservedly smirked at a mere three years after his permanent retirement). Audiences suspect the worst of motivations, often for good reason. So, predictably, the public reaction to the LCD Soundsystem comeback announcement in late 2015 was spiked with a prominent dose of hostility.
Just over four years earlier, they had hyped their disbandment with a climactic farewell show at Madison Square Garden. The 2012 documentary, Shut Up and Play the Hits documents the event, deftly balancing the band’s conflicted feelings about their departure with the grandiosity of the show; nevertheless, it showcases a night above all absorbed by its own finality. After that sort of carefully calculated fanfare, it’s difficult to swallow a slew of festival dates and a Christmas song just one Frank Ocean Album Gap later.
Now that it has arrived, though, it’s clear that American Dream, the fourth LCD Soundsystem album, isn’t a half-baked cash grab. It’s a dense, vital album that more than justifies the messy journey it took to arrive. If there was any question what seven years time would do to LCD Soundsystem’s sound, the answer appears to be a resounding “not much.” American Dream largely stays within the confines of their established oeuvre. LCD mastermind James Murphy’s sonic palette is, like a record store nerd version of Quentin Tarantino, comprised of a slew of disparate influences both obvious and obscure. Murphy lifts from everything spanning post-punk and disco to modern dance and indie rock, but the cocktail he crafts is distinctly his own; LCD Soundsystem sounds like a lot of things, but very few things fully sound like LCD Soundsystem.
American Dream doesn’t mess with that formula beyond some tweaks at the margins; the record feels more grizzled and slightly darker than its predecessors. A telling example comes early on with “Change Yr Mind,” so high strung that it feels inches away from tumbling into chaos. It has Brian Eno coursing through its veins, with liberal doses of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads and Berlin-era David Bowie. Murphy appears to address LCD’s breakup and reunion with a typical mixture of arrogance and self-deprecation, but mostly he just sounds jaded. “I’m not dangerous now the way I used to be once,” he bemoans. “I’m just too old for it now.”
Just as foreboding and jittery on the surface is “Other Voices,” another liberal nod to Talking Heads. It’s a more polished and disciplined take on the wide-eyed “Pow Pow” from This Is Happening. Like “Pow Pow”, though, it veers towards goofiness thanks to heavily tongue-in-cheek delivery, complete with a campy spoken word Nancy Whang verse. The darkest moment almost certainly arrives with album centerpiece and highlight “How Do You Sleep?,” a tribal, acidic sprawl that calls out DFA cofounder Tim Goldsworthy with as much vitriol as we’ve ever heard from Murphy on record. The trek to its climax is a long one, but once it hits, it’s stunning; the sledgehammering, concussive synth recalls a nastier “Dance Yrself Clean.”
American Dream is a heavy record, but it does lighten up in spots. It never gives us an easy anthem a la “Drunk Girls” or “Daft Punk Is Playing In My House,” but “Emotional Haircut” comes closest, with galloping drums and a vocal freakout that recalls the sweat-soaked frenzy of their cover of Harry Nillson’s “Jump Into the Fire.” It’s funny and fun, but never without some underlying tension, as Murphy shrieks about “numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete.” “Call the Police,” aiming to be instantly arena-ready, isn’t quite as rousing as it wants to be; it sort of feels like LCD Anthem Mad Libs. It’s fine as crowdpleasers go, but isn’t as organic as their finest work.
Elsewhere, the band pulls at heartstrings—and it works, mostly. “Black Screen” is the record’s most heartfelt song, even if it isn’t its best. Murphy recalls the recording sessions for David Bowie’s Blackstar, which he contributed to briefly before abandoning (seemingly out of insecurity). In the process, the two developed a relationship and Bowie reportedly encouraged an LCD Soundsystem reunion shortly before his death. Murphy’s lyrics and delivery recall the lived-in numbness of “Someone Great,” and similarly tap into the dueling emotions that prod you in the face of loss—shock, affection, nostalgia, guilt. It’s startlingly intimate.
American Dream is a well-structured, surprisingly consistent record, meticulously produced and carefully, confidently constructed. The album finds Murphy confronting problems he’s always had in his periphery, but as he’s gotten older and more cynical, the problems haven’t become any easier to grapple with. His honesty in the face of such existential battles is bracing. “Life is finite,” he quips on “Tonite,” “But shit, it feels like forever.” Until that changes, Murphy’s appeal is here to stay.