Expectations can be a tricky thing. Whether you’re talking about a star athlete, a band or simply your co-workers and family, the more familiar we get with a person, the easier it is to place expectations on them and anticipate they’ll be met. When that guy in your office went ahead and made back-up copies of all those important files just to make sure they were safe in the event of a catastrophic disaster, it creates an expectation. When Michael Jordan would hit that game-winning shot at the last second, that created expectations. They don’t always work out – that co-worker I just mentioned might get busted sleeping at his desk a week later – but when somebody does perform in line with however much we expect of them, there’s a certain pleasure we can take from the results. In the case of LCD Soundsystem, expectations are high. James Murphy, the singular man with the plan behind the moniker, has released two albums worth of dance music with indie rock pastiche so far, and both are critically acclaimed and beloved by those who have heard them. The last official LCD Soundsystem album, 2007’s “Sound of Silver”, was so highly regarded it not only wound up atop many publications’ “best of the year” lists, but it also tended to place quite well in the “best of the decade” lists. Crafting an equally compelling follow-up to that album has to be a near impossible task, but as Murphy has already shown us, near impossible is what he does best.
“This Is Happening” is largely cut from the same thematic cloth that “Sound of Silver” was. Murphy may craft a number of intense dancefloor beats, but lyrically speaking he’s an intense realist, choosing to make his subject matter about some of the sadder things in life, be it losing touch with your friends or ending a romantic relationship. The words may betray the tempo, but that’s part of the brilliance LCD Soundsystem brings to the table. It’s also something that many great artists have done before, in particular Brian Eno on many of his records. Of course Murphy isn’t always deadly serious, as on the first single “Drunk Girls”, which lampoons the differences between the genders when both have had too much alcohol. And though it may essentially be an angry rant against sell out, major label artists, there’s also plenty of humor to be found in “You Wanted a Hit” (which, coincidentally, clocks in at over 9 minutes long and has 0 chances of becoming a hit). Perhaps my favorite line on the entire album though comes from the funny but eventually darkly-themed “Pow Pow”, where Murphy exclaims “Eat it Michael Musto/You’re no Bruce Vilanch”. For those who don’t know, Michael Musto is a writer for the Village Voice, Bruce Vilanch is a comedy writer best known for scripting award show presenter banter. Murphy and Musto are in a pseudo-feud after Musto called Murphy a douchebag for “pulling a Kanye” (twice) at an awards show. So there’s some insider info on the insult.
When it comes to the really serious stuff though, “This Is Happening” tends to focus on romantic issues. “I Can Change” finds Murphy waxing poetic about how we’ll sometimes make personality adjustments to make a relationship work, while at the same time calling love a “murderer” and a “curse” and “an open book to a verse of your bad poetry”. The somber “Somebody’s Calling Me” is about the desire for a relationship with a girl, but all the lines of communication are shut down. The excellent and highly emotional “All I Want” laments a break up, with Murphy acknowledging his sorry state and begging her to come back by saying “All I want is your pity/And all I want are your bitter tears”. Nothing quite packs the same resonance as “Sound of Silver”‘s big moment “All My Friends”, but there’s plenty of relatable and highly effective highlights across this album too.
What makes “This Is Happening” a truly great record is that James Murphy makes it crystal clear that he’s working as hard as possible to try and top himself yet again. Though he doesn’t completely succeed, that he comes extremely close is nothing short of admirable. Where other artists might use the opportunity to take a few chances and try something experimental or simply forego putting up as much of an effort, Murphy refuses to take such success with ease and candor. The drive to consistently make strides forward in the face of immense pressure and opposition is the mark of a true champion. What this new album lacks in an expansion of the overall LCD Soundsystem sound, it more than makes up for with stronger writing and vocal performances from Murphy. And of course if words and emotions aren’t your thing, there’s also plenty of classic beats to keep you happy on the dancefloor. In a year already filled with excellent albums, chalk up another great one from LCD Soundsystem. We’re less than halfway done with 2010, but mark your calendars and anticipate hearing much more about “This Is Happening” when year-end listmaking season comes around.