I guess at some point in our lives it just becomes impractical, even hopeless, to keep trying to have clout, to be “cool” when it comes to this or that thing we really care about. I don’t know why it is, but when I’ve invested in some great thing, I want a platform—for instance, an editor position—to speak with weight about how that thing gives life a pulse, only to find out that, for the most part, nobody really cares. And, actually, at those moments I begin to wonder what and why and how I even do—why do I care so much about these things? I’d say these moments of frank self-awareness might be among the most human of all experiences.
And that’s the basic beat-pumping and fleshy heart of James Murphy’s late-blooming stint with LCD Soundsystem. His is music lovers’ music. Yes, in the sense that his brain’s charged with punk New Wave and an impeccable grasp of the rest of the early 80s NYC scene—he’s an education, recalling all of the sparks and forms of a forgotten artistic peak. But I also mean this in a much larger way: he writes music about the politics of listening to music, and about what happens once your particular scene’s been outlived.
He does all of this in a comic, kind-of blasé satiric way, but it’s all personally rooted. After turning down a shot to write for, at the time, the still-small-but-still-network-sitcom “Seinfeld,” he did the thing he cared most about: music. Tours with one junk band after another took him into his early 30s. And actually, it wasn’t until his DJ-ing and producing created momentum for his record label, DFA, that he had an outlet to treat his own work with the know-how he’d been sharing with everyone else.
By the time he was finally in the position to do what he really cared to do, in the way he cared to do it, his so-called scene had passed. So while his first single, “Losing My Edge,” works as a kind of dry poke at the Ray Ban faux-geeks—you know, the kind who Wikipedia through a long-line of subgenres and think this is basis enough to start talking the talk—it’s also a coming-of-adult moment for Murphy: even though he though he was there in the golden age, and even though he’s got all the right vinyls that most people don’t even know about, it’s a still a fleeting thing to be “the thing.”
Of course, what’s ironic is that in spite of depicting the process of becoming un-cool, Murphy’s dance-punk synthesis actually became the happening thing. With “Beat Connection” onward, he began a NYC trend against the increasingly unfashionable stop-and-stare etiquette of the snobs: as good a listener as anyone I can imagine, his admission was if you’re going to feel the music, you have to put on dancing pants.
It caught on. It wasn’t long before Britney Spears asked to do a collaboration, and Nike was funding his “workout record.” To top it off, his success was just as good, if not better, in Europe.
The success, though, didn’t disrupt his witty, droll self-awareness, and actually kind of pushed it further into a middle-aged, contemplative territory. He starts being real honest about all of things or ideas he venerated over the years. For instance, in “Sound of Silver,” he sings, “sound of silver talk to me, makes me want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real-life emotional teenager—then you think again.” And it’s the same double-taking in “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.”
It reaches what I think is the pinnacle moment of Murphy’s career in “All My Friends.” In this seven-minute track, he traces his life from “where it starts,” to moving from place to place in the scramble to make all the “good” things happen. And then what happens when you do? As he says, “you spend the first ten years tryin’ to get with the plan, then the next years tryin’ to be with your friends again.” It turns into a mid-life spiraling, and you try remembering what it was you were actually looking for; meanwhile, “you’re drunk and the kids look impossibly tan—you think over and over, ‘Hey, I’m finally dead.’”
I think this is what leads him to talk about a sense of “home” in nearly half of the songs in his final full-length released last year. “All I want is your pity, or all I want is your pretty tunes,” he says; in the indecision and over more-and-more screeching distortion, he cries, “Take me home.”
With the release of “This Is Happening” last year, he also promised this would be the last from LCD Soundsystem—just as he promised himself he’d be done when he turned 40. In interviews, he’s said that you can only be the oldest one at the party for so long. It seems just like him to say so.
This past weekend, Murphy played a hot, sweaty three-hour set to a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden. No doubt it’s an event that attendees will remember for a long time. Over the years, he’s treated—others, and coincidentally his own—with a kind care that I hope will be admired for the next generation of look-backers. If not, I think he’s realized an even greater thing that I admire: you only get one life, whether you’re cool or not.