At the time of their breakthrough in 2002, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy was already 32 years of age. Having moved to New York in 1989, he had spent over a decade floundering amongst the city’s various scenes, mixing with its various scenesters, being in bands, expanding his record collection, DJing at the hippest bars, throwing parties, and finally, starting his own record label. Faced with the anxieties of ageing in a fickle youth-centric culture, he decided to step out from behind the decks and make music of his own. After many years spent occupying the peripheries, he threw himself headlong into a music scene that was suffering a huge identity crisis.
Rather than slotting himself into the new flock of indie rock revivalists, Murphy used his seniority to his advantage, harnessing the detachment, reflection, and subsequent wisdom brought to him by age. Thumbing through his extensive record collection, Murphy unashamedly hand-picked his favourite elements from the history of popular (and unpopular) music and created an alchemical concoction that sounded like nothing else of its time. By the time ‘Sound of Silver’ had arrived, he had perfected this methodology, along with his overall songcraft. The result was one of the defining albums of an era that was, until that point, indefinable.
Now this may sound like a bold statement, but consider this; pre ‘Sound of Silver’, the defining bands of the 00s were the “art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties”, referenced in LCD Soundsystem’s debut single ‘Losing My Edge’, or bands born of such lineage. But despite some real quality emerging from the indie rock revival, most were simply lifting complete aesthetics from previous scenes, in a direct and uninspired manner.
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Perhaps one may be tempted to cast LCD Soundsystem aside as serial re-hashers also. The important distinction to make with Murphy’s project however, is that it drew upon a much wider range of influences. Rather than channelling the energy of a specific scene or band, ‘Sound of Silver’ contained influences as far removed as post-punk, samba, synth-pop, and techno, sometimes in the very same song. Where you could pinpoint the precise influences of their New York counterparts, such as The Strokes, Interpol, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem’s genre bleeding coalesced to create something consequently untraceable. In an act of anti-rockism, they instigated a ruthless erosion of genre boarders, blasting the field wide open, playing dance to the rock kids and rock to the dance kids.
And what’s more, LCD Soundsystem made no attempt to cloak their cherry-picking of influences, a point which is central to their ideology. How could Murphy deflect allegations of being a mere crate-digging poseur with a good knowledge of production and an address book full of contacts? Well, because the ageing hipster character he’d painted in ‘Losing My Edge’, who “WAS THERE” at the first Suicide practices, and the first Can shows, and the person giving questionable advice to a young Captain Beefheart, that’s James Murphy – at least a caricature of him. He’d defeated his critics before he’d even started. You can’t thrust an accusing finger in the direction of someone who had already laid out their foibles on the table with their very first release. That was just the beginning of LCD Soundsystem’s genius.
If people thought their 2005 self-titled debut album was a good example of their disparate influences, then ‘Sound of Silver’ would smack them around the mouth with it. Despite containing some great individual songs, ‘LCD Soundsystem’ is a mere mixtape of unrelated singles next to ‘Sound of Silver’, which is a much more cohesive package. ‘Sound of Silver’ contains all the nuances of a late 60s/early70s rock album, when bands were first discovering the capacity of the Long Player. You get a real sense of the thought that went into the recording process. Murphy even plastered the walls of the studio in tin foil, as he thought the previous album sounded too “beige”. There’s a narrative, there’s a theme, there’s light and dark in all the right places, but most importantly, Murphy took a hatchet to his vow that he would never write a personal song.
He began to expose himself lyrically. Through this came the paranoid punky thrash of ‘North American Scum’, documenting the pitfalls of carrying such a powerful national identity on your back. Opener ‘Get Innocuous!’ bemoans banal routine in Murphy’s most laconic and distant vocal, broken up by conversely red-blooded synth lines. Then there’s the detached piano balladry of closer ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’, with lines as potent as “you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown”, a schizophrenic declaration of both disgust and devotion.
Then of course there is that brace of big hitters slap bang in the middle of ‘Sound of Silver’, that 1-2 of heart-wrenching reflection, a tear-jerking dyad of end-of-the-night anthems. ‘Someone Great’ and ‘All My Friends’ are the left and right ventricles at the heart of the album. An arrogance is almost exposed on Murphy’s part that these two songs could even exist side by side on an album. The former deals candidly with loss, a loss that can be appropriated at the listener’s discretion. ‘Someone Great’ is inexorably sad, but danceable at the same time, with its glitchy, bleepy strut that penetrates from the off.
That brings us on to the band’s flagship anthem, ‘All My Friends’. This is where the theme of ageing crops up once again. It’s a theme which, to varying degrees, permeates the album, from the looped refrain of the title track to that line in ‘Watch The Tapes’; “You turn 25 and now you’re all out of escapes”. But it’s ‘All My Friends’ that best captures that feeling of watching your youth slowly slipping from your grasp. Like the title track, there’s a conflicting sense of nostalgia for youth and relief at its passing. The “memory of our betters that are keeping us on our feet” get counteracted with a declaration that “this could be the last time”, and that barely concealed Pink Floyd reference, suggesting a liberation of taste that is stifled in youth.
The theme of ageing is even reflected in the instrumentation of ‘All My Friends’. That clunky piano intro sounds remarkably feeble when standing alone, yet it grows in stature as it binds with the bass and drums. It gains confidence as it wraps around Murphy’s vocal, until finally it’s surging into the song’s climax, despite not changing a single note throughout. It’s the lyric and vocal delivery which dictate the intensity, carefully balancing contradictions until that memorable final lyrical pay off. It seems bold to define an entire generation in one song, but for Millennials many have hinted at this song doing just that.
There was something that set Murphy apart from a lot of other songwriters at that time. That is that he asked questions about innovation in an age where it felt like everything had already been done, and without slipping into unlistenable abstraction. Instead of reaching for the highest branches of sonic invention, Murphy trawled his record collection and knitted it together to form something which in its eclecticism, somehow managed to sound like the past, present, and future simultaneously. ‘Sound of Silver’, in its essence, feels like the result of Murphy being posed the ever troubling question of; “so what music are you into?”, and rather than give an answer, he went into the studio, put tin foil all over the walls, created a seminal album, and went, “well, this.”