"In the early 2000s, when ironic posturing was the new slackened repose, James Murphy felt like a godsend. At this point, it’s probably a waste of a word count to spill any more ink on LCD Soundsystem’s epochal run of early singles, topped in grand fashion by “Losing My Edge,” a bibliographic document of Murphy’s many hipper-than-thou influences and reference points (most of which he's spent the last eight or so years reiterating ad-nauseam—I get it, dude loves him some Talking Heads). In the past, however, the music has usually been strong enough to make all this tolerable—unless, of course, overt reverence happens to rub you the wrong way. Still, there comes a point when lyrical irony spills over into blatant condescension. Which is to say that on This is Happening, LCD Soundsystem’s third full-length, Murphy ratchets his pedestal up so high, I’m amazed he didn't get a nose bleed.
Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration—particularly since you can tell by the rating up there I don’t particularly dislike this album. I actually even kind of like it… despite itself. So caveats abound, but let’s start with the positives. There are at least three great songs on This is Happening; similar to 2007's wildly praised Sound of Silver, two glorious epics anchor the record's middle. David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy is the already agreed-upon reference point of “All I Want,” this album’s answer to Sound of Silver’s “Someone Great,” and the track certainly carries with it more than a whiff of "Heroes". But it's Murphy’s rarely tapped emotional side that wins the day. Now here's a negative: Murphy's either a terrible judge of his material or simply wants to have things both ways. In either case, I can’t fathom why he thinks the earnestness of “All I Want” and “I Can Change” could sit comfortably next to the silly “One Touch,” which grooves like Liquid Liquid but trips over Murphy’s faux-Eno deadpan, some ridiculously child-like vocal intrusions, and nursery rhyme-level insights such as “One touch is never enough/People need to move to the back of the bus.”
That's not to say that even the standouts are particularly insightful lyrically (not with observations like “Love is a curse shoved in a hearse”; second rate high school poetry at best), but the sincerity in the emotionally damaged “I Can Change” and yearning closer “Home” nonetheless rings true. In fact, the latter may be the album’s best track, transporting the burnt-out hometown sentiments of “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” into surroundings far less boring and more in line with the classic LCD sound. “Pow Pow” also provokes a familiar nostalgia—first for those early singles and then for Remain in Light—but its infectious flow is, by comparison, crippled by force-fed jeering about Obama and Michael Musto. (Further damaging: unrelated asides about New York eateries and kissing chicks under a bridge. Best not to think too hard about the implications of the lyrics, I guess, since Murphy probably spit-balled his way through the track anyway.)
I can’t get past the idea that if Murphy simply respected his audience as much as he respects his influences, shit like “Drunk Girls” just wouldn’t happen. Even ignoring that he’s now written basically the same single three albums running—and in progressively suspect fashion, beginning with the self-titled’s knowingly enamored and charming “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” and continuing with Sound of Silver’s perspectively deferred “North American Scum”—this may be the definitive evidence that Murphy has jumped the shark. The chant-along bits are simply lazy songwriting, but the lyrical patronizing is next level, never rising above cock-rock sloganeering 101. Of course, this is James Murphy, so it’s supposed to be satirical, but the ironic undercutting of the frat-party lifestyle just doesn’t work for me since it's those same people who will likely get off on the track, lining Murphy's pockets with ticket sales. (Not to mention the fact that it’s more than a little creepy that this guy is 40 years old and just now dropping lines about pedophiles and one night stands—again, to hordes of presumably drunken females.)
“Drunk Girls” may be the unequivocal low point of the LCD catalogue thus far, but Murphy’s misjudgment again comes in degrees. This is Happening contains only nine songs, yet it stretches well past an hour in length. And obviously “Drunk Girls” was included as its single and is, therefore, the presumable “hit,” right? How then do we explain “You Wanted a Hit,” the album’s most hypocritical blunder? Most of the tracks here—even the ones I admire—run well past the point of necessity, so it’s fairly disheartening to see Murphy ironically pander to casual fans on the one hand, while on the other indulge himself in a nine-minute excursion extolling his allegiance to the album format—something he has yet to master. But at least, like a lot of half-decent LCD material, if you can ignore the lyrics then the track proves passably entertaining. That’s more than you can say about “Somebody’s Calling Me,” an interminable dirge that’s dropped in the penultimate slot like a slab of cement. It’s an obvious B-side, and in this sense, to call it a momentum killer would be a compliment. It makes you wonder how many people, after 7 minutes of tick-tocking drudgery, will even get to acquaint themselves with the charms of the aforementioned closer.
Which leads back to the fact that James Murphy simply cannot bring himself to excise the weak material from his albums. Which is disappointing, because when this stuff works, it’s some of the best music being produced today. Furthermore, the debate it provokes certainly speaks to the music's effectiveness—it just doesn't excuse the fact Murphy's shooting at easy targets with tracks like “Drunk Girls” and “You Wanted a Hit.” The divisiveness of “Yeah” wasn’t due solely to Murphy's repeating of the titular refrain a couple hundred times (though I’m sure that was enough for some), but because he self-consciously forced minimalism through a disorienting lens of outside influences and with a blatant disregard for further commentary. Over the course of nearly a decade, Murphy's proven himself master curator and, for the most part, a resourceful commentator on many aspects of the modern hipster ideal. The latter has inevitably led him through pastures both inspired and slightly embarrassing, but does it even matter that he can’t put together a consistent full-length? When it’s all said and done, this guy is going to have a helluva best-of compilation." [73/100] [Published 06.03.10]