How LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver defined an era
There’s little value in cloaking this piece in a posture of journalistic detachment, so I won’t: I think LCD Soundsystem are one of the best bands of the 21st century
Their second album, Sound of Silver, which turned ten years old this year, honed the dance-punk exuberance of their first, self-titled album of 2005, combining dance and rock music in a way few have managed so successfully, before or since.
James Murphy, a veteran of the New York music scene, started the band in 2001. They shot to attention with Losing My Edge, a song Murphy has said “is about being horrified by [his] own silliness” – of suddenly finding himself an in-demand “cool rock disco guy”, but equally anxious of squandering that social cache. The pathos, comedy and self-awareness co-existed with a disarming earnestness – all themes that would become the hallmarks of the band’s later records.
On its release in 2007, Sound of Silver garnered universal acclaim. The Guardian, in its habitual trendy dad style, called it “dance-rock for grown-ups: extraordinary”. Pitchfork – by that time, de facto leader of taste-making music blogs and websites – gave it a 9.2, and praised its “deep, spacious, and full-blooded” sound. Even Resident Advisor, usually sceptical of ‘dance rock’, gave it a respectable 3.5 and judged it “a damn good fusion of rock and dance music”.
It was a product of its time. 2007 was the middle of George W. Bush’s second term as President of the United States. The preceding years had shattered what seems, in retrospect, to be the blithe comfort of the 90s. 9/11, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina – these events, in particular, upset the cosy image America had of itself, both in domestic and international affairs. In their review, Rolling Stone referred to “the existential crisis of being American in this historical moment” alluded to in North American Scum: “I hate the feelin’ when you’re looking at me that way / ‘Cause we’re north Americans”. New York, where the band lived and made music, was becoming increasingly friendly to big business and much less so to the working class black and Hispanic, as well as the white liberal artistic, communities that had called it home for decades. In New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down, Murphy sniped at the bogeyman of many liberal New Yorkers, the then-mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Your mild billionaire mayor’s/ now convinced he’s a king”.
A key feature of Bloomberg’s mayorship was the intensification of gentrification in New York. Accompanying this was the spread of ‘the hipster’, someone who drank PBRs, partied in Brooklyn and/or LA, and worked in something their parents were funding. In New York, I love You…, Murphy complained how “the boring” were starting to “collect” there, and left no doubt about how he felt about it: “I mean all disrespect”. (Whether Murphy was himself part of the first wave of this gentrification, as a middle-class white man who arrived in the city in 1988, well after the bourgeois-ification of New York, is left unexamined.)
The music of 2007 was a mix of exhilarating and dull. The dreadful, gloopy mulch churned out by major labels benumbed listeners as it always had – the highest-selling album of that year was Avril Lavigne’s inaptronymic The Best Damn Thing – and in the underground, minimal techno was rapidly losing its appeal.
Alongside this, however, was blog house. Blog house wasn’t really a genre of music; it was more a nebulous profusion of tracks spread by tastemakers on the internet. Typically it was dance music with rock characteristics, Simian’s We Are Your Friends being a classic example. Justice, Digitalism, MSTRKRFT, Soulwax, A-Trak and many others had entire careers facilitated by blogs, and especially blog-aggregator Hype Machine. It’s now mostly derided but Sound of Silver fed off this febrile internet-based virality and vitality.
The indie-dance explosion was certainly mocked at the time. Hipster Runoff – a ‘blog worth blogging about’ – started as an attempt to make it onto Hype Machine, but became a hugely popular website and, more than that, a persona: Carles. With a stylised grammar and syntax lathered in irony, Carles wrote about hipsters, their lives and interests, and invited you to laugh at their ridiculous affectations, their ‘#content’ and ‘AmAppy’ (American Apparel) clothes, from the comfort of your grey suburban existence. Amidst all this, however, Carles sometimes made insightful, introspective comments about internet culture, celebrity, meaning, nihilism and cynicism. It was as if no one could express sincere emotion without shrouding it in irony.
The clever-silly mockery found on Hipster Runoff found more serious, musical expression in Murphy’s lyrics. “You can normalise/ Don’t it make you feel alive?’ rejoiced Get Innocuous. Watch the Tapes detailed more unusual forms of psychoactive substances, “We're both high high high, high high on lemon sips”. But the album’s most memorable songs are fraught with emotion.
While the socioeconomic context of the mid-aughts influenced Sound of Silver in important ways, it’s mostly an album of introspection, dealing with Murphy’s preoccupations at the time. Someone Great details, with striking, unadorned pathos, the loss felt from the fallout from a dissolved relationship, the wistful lyrics wrapped in anxious swirling leads and melancholic bass. Similarly, All My Friends knowingly invites all those Talking Heads and Bowie references with a ringing piano line looped throughout, two-chord alternation and Murphy doing his best anthem-voice. Perhaps the album’s most memorable lyric comes on that track: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision/ For another five years of life” – a validation of a hedonistic lifestyle many of us aspired to. And then it closes with New York, I Love You…, a paean to the city Murphy felt was losing many of things that made it so special to him. It begins ploddingly, with Murphy’s wistful humour (“Our records all show…”) building to a shouty crescendo: “Maybe she’s wrong and maybe I’m right”, that maybe New York really is shit now, but he can’t help still being in love with it.
Sound of Silver transcended the tension between comforting (post)-irony and earnest creative endeavours. It is smart without being pretentious, silly without being stupid, pop without being saccharine and dance without being po-faced. It captured a historical moment, where the world was getting (even more) dreadful for most of its inhabitants, music could get a new lease of life via the internet, and literate emotiveness could co-exist with shielding irony. It is LCD Soundsystem’s masterpiece.