Even after decades of being conditioned to view band “farewells” as marketing ploys for inevitable reunions, LCD Soundsystem’s short-lived breakup felt especially cynical. James Murphy always seemed too hip, too self-aware to succumb to such easy traps of commercialism, but he recently suggested that billing the band’s 2011 “final” show as such was just a ruse to sell out Madison Square Garden. If American Dream, their fourth studio album, is intended as a nostalgic cash-grab, however, it’s a piss poor one.
The triptych of LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver, and This Is Happening captured the sound of Murphy neurotically dancing his way through his 30s in 2000s New York City in perfectly self-contained fashion. While its 1970s and ’80s influences, whizz-bang synths, and froggy vocals are entirely recognizable, American Dream finds Murphy pushing his compatriots and his own psyche into new, unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable territory. Which is exactly why, as far as reunion albums by aging bands go, this one is about as gratifyingly unpredictable as anyone could have hoped for.
American Dream is notably more rock-oriented than its predecessors. Some of the percussive patterns are a bit less complex—the thumping drum intro to “I Used To” is surprisingly and disarmingly simple—while the guitars are more prominent. (See the noisy, droning solo on “I Used To” or the squealing electric bursts on “Change Yr Mind” that help take Murphy further than ever in his lifelong quest to convincingly mimic Berlin-era David Bowie.) While this negates some of the postmodern flair that made LCD’s previous, more dance-oriented work sound so fresh, it contributes to the album’s defining heaviness—most apparent on the angry and punkish “Emotional Haircut.”
American Dream’s heaviness, however, comes more from its emotional tone and content than its instrumentation. This is a dark, murky album, far more so than any of the band’s prior ones. Based on the title alone, one might assume that has something to do with the current political climate. But the cause of Murphy’s angst is the same one it’s always been: encroaching middle age. Now that he’s approaching 50, it’s just much more pronounced. This is most obvious on the title track, a woozy lament about getting older: “In the morning everything’s clearer/When the sunlight exposes your age,” Murphy croons, the glimmering synths doing little to disguise his haggard outlook.
Murphy’s malaise is palpable from the moment the album opens with “Oh Baby,” a dreamy, hazy ballad that sees him singing about bad dreams and romantic “stumbles.” He sounds tired, almost despondent. We’ve heard Murphy in a similar mood before on songs like “Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up” and “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” but choosing a song like this to lead off the album rather than the usual clubby banger immediately establishes a different tonal character.
The rest of American Dream’s first half is a plunge into even bleaker emotional depths. Even the more uptempo tracks, like “Other Voices” and “Change Yr Mind,” are full of nervous energy and skittering, paranoiac synth and guitar patterns. This descent culminates with Murphy’s raw, lonesome howling on the nine-minute epic “How Do You Sleep?” As the song slowly unfolds from an opening of almost tribal sounding-drums to a thundering climax, Murphy levels bitter broadsides at a former party-days running mate: “Standing on the shore, getting old/You left me here with the vape clowns.”
The album’s mood does lighten after that, with “Tonite,” the album’s most overt throwback to the groovy, witty, meta LCD of old, and “Call the Police,” which cranks up the tempo and soars on the back of its sustain-heavy guitars and Murphy’s throaty, energetic vocals. But Murphy ends up back in the muck again soon enough, closing the album with the stark 12-minute “Black Screen,” where his detached, robotic, ghostly vocals eventually give way to five minutes of gorgeous piano/synth ambiance. It underscores the fact that the band that made American Dream is far from the one you remember.