25 Masterworks: LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
My Spin on Masterworks: 17 of 25
Sound of Silver
It’s unfortunate that in many circles, the word “hipster” has become synonymous with “wanker”. The term carries with it disparaging undertones even when its use is actually perfectly dictionary-approved. In recent years, perceived qualities of snobbery, try-hard chic, and general aloofness have become attached to the hipster subculture, with anybody expressing a potentially conflicting opinion on pop culture now easily dismissed as a hipster contrarian. Although this is mostly done in good humour, thanks to popular stereotyping, the values most associated with hipsterdom are now widely viewed as conceited and po-faced.
James Murphy is one of the archetypal hipsters of 21st century music, considering that from afar, he ticks an almost-infuriating number of boxes on the hipster-spotter’s checklist. There’s the oft-cited vinyl worship and his staggering record collection of the kind you’d spot in Dust and Grooves. There’s his earnest adoration of 80s icons, the discography of comparatively lengthy tunes built on endless repetition, the singles with names like ‘Losing My Edge’ and ‘Yr City’s a Sucker’. Just for extra points, there’s the requisite facial fuzz, left-field side-projects (including Manhattan’s Subway Symphony), and the thousand-yard-stare that graces almost all of his press photos. He ostensibly makes such an easy target for kneejerk disdain that even Arcade Fire’s Win Butler has admitted to reacting as such before the two musicians finally collaborated, declaring that Murphy appears “kind of insufferable” until you get past that first impression.
In truth, Murphy is a smart player who is much less precious than he first appears. He fronted (and effectively acted as the face and mouthpiece of) LCD Soundsystem, the dance-punk collective who left a searing mark on the latter half of the noughties before bowing out with a legendary four-hour farewell show at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Several days into 2016, Murphy announced LCD Soundsystem would be reforming for shows as well as further records, to a mixed reception of delight and disappointment. Some hardcore fans have argued that this revival cheapens the emotional charge of the band’s original blowout, but ultimately, the return of one of the past decade’s most-loved acts is cause for celebration. As with Murphy himself, the band risked alienating fans with their stylistic tics (those arty band photos, that fetishised monochrome colour scheme, the blazers, the badges, the aviators), but look beyond these surface details, and their creative output is anything but aloof. In fact, it’s wonderfully easy to embrace: at their best, LCD Soundsystem sounded amicable, sensitive and ceaselessly self-effacing, while succeeding in joining the dots between the hot-blooded propulsion of a rock band and the crisp leanness of a dance outfit. They may be hipsters, but they’re categorically not wankers.
Although 2010’s This is Happening is arguably the most enjoyable of LCD Soundsystem’s three LPs, Sound of Silver is the real jewel in the band’s crown: a record that contains a perfect balance of the group’s strongest assets. LCD Soundsystem were (and they remain) very cool, but they’re also super goofy. They achieved greatness without sounding as though they were flailing for it. Theirs isn’t music of prissy perfectionism and frostiness, but excitable jams where fun and flavour are the primary objectives. Hence, for every demonstration of edgy swagger, they equally revelled in moments of self-aware silliness: the cowbell solos, the pithy quips, the ecstatic synth squiggles. The video for 2010’s ‘Drunk Girls’ features Murphy and bandmates Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney being menaced by a bunch of pranksters pissing around in panda outfits, while documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits shows the band’s live attack as an ecstatic affair.
A true sense of enjoyment and love for the medium shines through the veneer of LCD Soundsystem’s music, and on Sound of Silver, the band’s trademark mingling of the cool and the ridiculous entwines with wonderful results. ‘North American Scum’ might pack a monster of a chorus, but Murphy’s wails are those of a wannabe rather than a bigwig, any traces of affectation undercut by hilarious yelps of “you wouldn’t touch us with a ten-foot pole” and “don’t blame the Canadians!” (The best pronunciation of “Canadians” you’ll hear on record, guaranteed.) These gleeful forays into big, dumb fun are the perfect foil to the gripping pulse of the instrumentation. ‘Watch the Tapes’ has Murphy yowling like a teenager over a sticky bass riff, concluding that “we all get a little drunk and then we act like apes” after four minutes of mostly nonsense. The album leans on these dafter moments to steady more ethereal passages elsewhere, such as the title track’s techno bliss-out, which is given room to breathe across seven luxurious minutes.
This wit is so crucial because the band’s musical smarts are almost intimidating in of themselves. Musically, Sound of Silver is immaculate, announcing itself from the off as a work of impressive nous; a collaboration of minds who have spent years coveting hidden treasures from decades past, before reworking their influences into an equally powerful original creation. The layering alone in ‘Get Innocuous!’ is wondrous to behold: one hundred seconds in, additional manual drums join the poppy snap of the analogue drum machine, and a wobbly keyboard motif slowly muscles its way higher in the mix. Even before the vocal sloganeering (“don’t it make you feel alive?”) has worked its repetitive magic, ‘Get Innocuous!’ has announced the record as one of supreme musical dexterity. (And the song is so awesome it’s kind of embarrassing for everybody else.)
But Sound of Silver wouldn’t be nearly as loveable as it is were it not for its big, soft heart, and at the album’s core, Murphy proves his chops for jerking tears as well as moving hips. ‘Someone Great’ conveys its vulnerability over a thick keyboard hook and a range of pinging melodies, as Murphy comes to terms with an ambiguous loss. Contextual details (is this the end of a relationship? A sudden departure? Death?) are left foggy as the singer hones in on the aftermath in a wash of muddled emotions. In lieu of outright heartbreak, the sadness is felt with stupefaction and subtle dislocation, grief registered like a puncture in an indifferent world of unceasing movement. “The coffee isn’t even bitter,” Murphy notes, “because what’s the difference?” Beyond this shattering personal distress, the world coldly carries on: “and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming…” ‘Someone Great’ has such lasting power because it offers an honest glimpse of mourning in modern times.
It’s outstanding, and the centrepiece that it forms with ‘All My Friends’ is what elevates Sound of Silver more than any other present quality. ‘All My Friends’ is the kind of song that words can’t really do justice to. Suffice to say, it’s a song with which LCD Soundsystem captured the essence of something huge; a sublime, universal bittersweetness in a beautiful treatise on aging, honing in on music, companionship, and the homes we find in the chaos. “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision / For another five years of life,” goes one single line, as the song accelerates towards its finale. It’s music that isn’t just heard, it’s deeply felt. Just listen.
It might be too challenging for me to articulate the power of ‘All My Friends’, but pinning down the winning formula of its parent album is comparatively simple. Sound of Silver is the most winsome creation of a group who knew how to be cool, as well as when to embrace the ridiculous. These songs strafe between pithiness and sincerity, lovingly tipping a cap to heroes of the past without succumbing to slavish homage. It’s sexy and stupid, hilarious and heartbreaking, and thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. Whether the reformed LCD Soundsystem can top Sound of Silver is yet to be seen, but it’s one hell of a high bar to clear.
Posted on October 15, 2016, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 25 Masterworks, All My Friends, DFA, Get Innocuous!, James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem, Nancy Whang, North American Scum, Pat Mahoney, Someone Great, Sound of Silver. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.