James Murphy has always been a big fan of rock music, in case he didn’t make it obvious with the previous 3 albums in his time as frontman of LCD Soundsystem. And so naturally, in 2011, he brought the band to a showstopping finish with a massive event of a concert, straight out of the classic rock playbook, and a whole reflective concert film about it. It took less than a decade for him to fold on his own decision. It was unsurprising to see Murphy retract his stance on something like this, with a band built on telling stories of screw-ups and oddities, with songs like “Daft Punk is Playing At My House” combining absurd hypotheticals with earworm rhythmic grooves and synth work straight out of a funk bargain bin in your local record store.
With American Dream James is fully aware of the mess he’s caused. On “change yr mind” he croons, “I’m just too old for it now / at least that seems to be true…” This mid-tempo track features squawking guitars reminiscent of Brian Eno as James sings about life after the band initially dissolved, stuck in a depression, and having “not seen anyone for days.” The track makes a nice progression into a guitar solo, but after James suddenly launches into a hypnotic repetition of the title, the track suddenly reaches a short instrumental outro and moves on. It’s less the music itself and more the pacing that ends up being frustrating, a common theme throughout the entire record as it progresses. Some of the tracks here can easily be placed as the best in the band’s discography, such as the haunting groove of “how do you sleep?,” a chaotic jam that slowly builds over an arpeggiating rhythm as the lyrics take shots against an old friendship that turned sour over time, with particular instances such as “You warned me about the cocaine / and dove straight in” seeming like very specific shots at whoever James is talking about. On the other hand, the single “tonite” is a frustrating exercise in repetition, following a similar pattern of building over time as most of LCD Soundsystem’s better songs, but never really heading in any particular direction as the bland synth pattern at the song’s base hammering into repetition well past the point where it’s interesting.
The lyrics are quite shabby as well, feeling like a textbook James Murphy rant about middle-age, record collecting, and staying up late. Sadly, this is lined up with the other two very middle-of-the road singles, “american dream” and “call the police” which both end up feeling like lesser versions of previous LCD songs. The former runs a hazy synthscape through an easy going riff as the lyrics describe the morning after a one night stand, but manages to end up feeling repetitive with its sole synth melody guiding it for six minutes. The latter aims to go for a much more exciting vibe, with the lyrics describing a massive rebellion in the streets as guitars chug along a driving rhythm reminiscent of arena rock records of the 80s, but ends up failing to make itself all that exciting, especially compared to the band’s own older work. This run of three tracks illustrates the main problem with the album, which is the complete lack of flow between ideas and tracks throughout the album, with any good moments of pacing being chopped off at the limbs before the record can really get to find its way. The opening pairing of “oh baby” and “other voices,” with their contrast of a slower exploration of a sound and a much noisier track focused on groove make a great start, but “i used to” suddenly takes the album into a mid-tempo at a time when it needs real momentum to excite the listener, and the previously mentioned “change yr mind” (which is still a great track on its own, for what it’s worth) continues this frustrating pattern.
Thankfully, the album manages to end as well as it starts. The penultimate track, “emotional haircut,” pictures James getting into a party to put himself away from the stresses he’s facing, such as the “numbers on your phone of the dead you cannot delete,” as the track opts for a very striking guitar line to accompany the manic energy his vocals are providing. Overall, it makes for a decent wake-up call before the much slower closer “black screen.” This final track comes out as a steady dirge for David Bowie, a figure who James met working on last year’s Blackstar, and who it seems he took a great amount of inspiration from in their time together, considering that Bowie was the one who gave him the final push to bring back LCD Soundsystem as it is now. His regrets and memories well up in sparse details, such as his remark, “I owe you dinner, man / I owe you something” or his poring over their emails between each other. This deeply personal eulogy for his mentor truly gets across the emotion James is trying to bring out throughout the album in a way that feels human and minute. In the end, James views death as a blank slate, with the same potential for anyone, or as he simply states it, “you could be anywhere on the black screen.” After this final repetition, Murphy lets the music speak for him with a spacious piano solo guiding the album out, with space for what was originally planned to be a spoken word outro by Leonard Cohen.
Overall, American Dream is a record that deals in very familiar ground for LCD Soundsystem. The same anxieties and rock’n’roll history that informed the previous albums are all here, as obvious as they’ll ever be, just in different forms. The problem is that in shattering the mythicality they built behind themselves with the finality of the Madison Square Garden show, expectations have been put at a greater level than they normally would be for the band. If this were a record from a band that had continued on as normal, people might have been okay with its faults. But for LCD Soundsystem, the issues with flow and pacing between tracks become all the more glaring, and the repetition of old ideas ends up being tiring. The best tracks here are the outliers, such as “how do you sleep” with its sheer tension and flair for the dramatic, or the tangible excitement radiating from the shout of “emotional haircut.” So in the end, the question is less “Can LCD Soundsystem return from breaking up properly?” and something closer to “Should they have returned at all?” I have my doubts about it, but it may be worth seeing their plans in the long run.