While discussing the burden of influence in 2005, James Murphy told us, "The Strokes are swimming up some incredibly serious stuff: Velvet Underground. Television. It's kinda soul-crushing in a way to listen to 'Perfect Day' and say, 'I'm gonna go write a song like that,' and it'll be fucking horrible by comparison." At that point, the Strokes had yet to squander their leather-clad, LES cool, and LCD Soundsystem were still, mostly, a Williamsburg blip. But over the past five years, things changed. Drastically. In 2010, early aughts trendsetters like Interpol and the Strokes are NYC relics, outpaced by a gang of stridently preppy, chart-topping Columbia grads and a 40-year-old Brian Eno obsessive. On This Is Happening, Murphy once again shows off his encyclopedic knowledge of all things post-punk and zip-tight. But he's also swimming up some serious stuff himself, including Eno and David Bowie's sacrosanct Berlin trilogy. And against his own prediction, it's far from horrible; it's actually pretty perfect.
"I spent my whole life wanting to be cool... but I've come to realize that coolness doesn't exist the way I once assumed," said Murphy in a recent Guardian feature. This realization probably has something to do with his rising cultural cache. After all, Murphy has done what all other music fiends only dream about-- he's flipped the system and become the embodiment of coolness. This is a phenomenal coup. And he's quick to rationalize his current status to the New Yorker: "I understand that if someone's going to make me his idea of cool I can't control that."
It's somewhat ironic, then, that Murphy's reign as New York's ambassador of post-hip-everything finds him nearly losing his cool on This Is Happening. His early singles and first album were him joking to himself, Sound of Silver was a collective rush of us vs. them, and now it's about him and her. This is also by far the bloodiest LCD Soundsystem album-- a series of bare, lacerating manifestos about distance between people, set to the fizzing art/dance-rock greatest hits inside Murphy's skull. "Love is a murderer," he sings on "I Can Change". He's not kidding.
On the hypnotic dirge "Somebody's Calling Me", the vocal chameleon tries on narcotic whispers while taking Iggy Pop's sleazy, empty-eyed "Nightclubbing" out of the club and into the bedroom. And though "All I Want" borrows that sliding Bowie guitar and kraut-y beat, Murphy makes it singe with his own tour-born regret, loss, and fatigue: "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." Even considering his bold-name touchstones for This Is Happening, it would be shortsighted to cry rip-off; Murphy is remaking essential 70s art-rock in his own hyper-modern, self-aware image.
This fearlessness burrows its way into the rest of the album, making it more of a self-help guide to relationship hangovers than a woe-is-me fest. Opener "Dance Yrself Clean" starts quiet and stuffed with circular paranoia: "Talking like a jerk except you are an actual jerk, and living proof that sometimes friends are mean," Murphy mumbles to himself. "All My Friends" this is not. But then a massive, meaty synth expands the speakers, lifts the singer up, and plops him down smack in the middle of the dancefloor. LCD Soundsystem has always excelled at making sounds for moving bodies, but now that motion is more entangled with other, less exuberant emotions. Potentially misguided frat anthem "Drunk Girls" is a punchline-laden lark that ends with, "Be honest with me, honestly/ Unless it hurts my feelings." On earlier records, Murphy could sound like he didn't really mean it while hollering on the fly, but This Is Happening confirms him as a top-tier vocalist and lyricist capable of mixing heavy and light, lyrical and self-deprecating, sometimes in the same line: "Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry... and this is coming from me."
Murphy's vast perspective and all-knowing mien are invaluable assets to his success. Recorded in L.A. instead of his hometown, This Is Happening finds the unlikely rock star zooming out even further in search of the realness and truth mentioned on the album's "music about writing music" track "You Wanted a Hit". And on the virtuoso rambler "Pow Pow", he seems to locate a perch where he can "relax" and "see the whole place" and understand "advantages to both" sides of any argument. Sounds nice. But by the end of the song, he's beset by confusion, numbness, and a false sense of security. "What you want from now is someone to feel you," he croons. At first, Murphy showed how to let loose without losing your cool; now he's figuring out how to break down without cracking up.