Don’t let the facts fool you. Sure, James Murphy and his merry pranksters did, in fact, record much of the third LCD Soundsytem album at the Mansion at 2451 Laurel Canyon (Rick Rubin’s pad, site of the recording of Red Hot Chili Peppers’s Bloodsugarsexmagik). But there’s not much sunlight to be heard on the dour This Is Happening. No, this is Murphy’s Berlin record. And Murphy, always more self-consciously referential than your average bear, is wearing his influences on his sleeve.
At times, it’s hard to listen to This Is Happening without wondering what it would sound like if it were produced by David Bowie. The sounds are mostly Murphy’s (the stabbing neon synth in the nervy album opener “Dance Yrself Clean,” the woozy snare roll of “You Wanted a Hit”), but the songwriting so thoroughly explores the boundary between homage and pastiche in places that it provokes ambivalence. It can be fun to play Spot the Reference, but such games amuse more when they’re not totally obvious. “All I Want”: “Heroes.” “Somebody’s Calling Me”: “Nightclubbing.” “Drunk Girls”: “White Light, White Heat.” Bing, bang, boom.
Of course, it’s not possible to dismiss Murphy’s work here so lightly. Yes, the nervous keening guitars on “All I Want” immediately and consistently evoke “Heroes,” but the lyrics and the noodly, distended, cosmic hangover synthesizer subvert the reference’s triumphalism. “All I want is your pity,” Murphy moans, “All I want are your bitter tears.” Rarely has being in one of the world’s most awesome bands sounded like such a downer. It’s kind of a neat trick, but it still doesn’t stack up to the gut-punching power and universality of Sound of Silver‘s most emotionally affecting songs. “All My Friends” and “Someone Great” had the virtue of sounding unique too.
Murphy doesn’t just plunder Bowie’s past. “Pow Pow,” easily the record’s limpest offering, is “Yeah!” once more with no feeling, all flanged syncopation and no sense of purpose. The sprawling warmth of “Home,” not coincidentally the band’s least awkward album-closer, hearkens back to “Beat Connection.” It’s another of This Is Happening‘s most deeply felt moments, though the feelings are mixed here too. Murphy wraps some creamy major chords around the lyric “If you’re afraid of what you need, look around you, it won’t get any better.”
So: Murphy is the main man in one of our era’s most Important bands. He makes amusing videos with Spike Jonze. He makes jokes about drinking beverages composed of champagne and whiskey. He performs in front of adoring audiences at Coachella while wearing a white suit. But all of this is unsatisfying. His love life sounds difficult. “I can change,” is the titular plaintive promise on the record’s one undisputable knockout punch. But can he? His record label wants him to be more commercial, resulting in “You Wanted a Hit,” a nine-minute “fuck you” that lilts one moment and grinds the next, an album highlight that will not get anywhere near a chart.
Murphy has suggested that This Is Happening may be the last LCD record. And that’s fair enough, especially if all the success is resulting in this level of ennui. But he’s also suggested that this might be the end because “a lot of people make three good records and then they don’t make good records anymore.” So let’s be clear: As good as this record is (and it is often very good), LCD Soundsystem can do, and has done, much better. You know who has made significantly more than three good records? David Bowie.