I was in middle school the first time I heard LCD Soundsystem. They were on the Step Brothers soundtrack, and “North American Scum” blared during the opening credits in the iconic scene where Will Ferrel’s and John C. Reilly’s characters meet. I was drawn to the synths and cheeky lyrics of James Murphy pretty much immediately.
I’m very bad at describing how music sounds. I became fairly competent at left-handed guitar at one point; besides that, I really don’t know shit about chord progression or “sonic arrangements” or whatever other term you see on Pitchfork when they review Riff Raff or whatever. I can really only describe how the sounds make me feel, or what they make me infer about the intent of a piece of music. I think that’s fine, that’s mostly how we relate to art in the first place; I’ve never watched a Paul Thomas Anderson movie and thought “the aspect ratio and tracking shots are what’s making me emotional right now” — although those things obviously enrich the film in totality. I’m not dismissing those more technical aspects.
I suppose, though, that what grabbed me about LCD Soundsystem’s instrumentation was its ability to convey mood and memory in the form of dance-punk. I’ve always been fascinated with this particular creative power music has; it’s why I love Debussy and John Coltrane and people like that.
LCD Soundsystem makes sentimental and pithy dance music. It’s really quite incredible. A song like “Us v Them” alludes to the monotony of everyday life while making you sway back and forth when listening; they take trebles, synths, fast-paced bass lines and all the other auditory cues that make us Feel Good and supplement them with wry lyrics about the lingering discontent everyone feels from time to time. It’s how you feel when you’re drunk with friends, having an objectively great time, but still feel the need to keep your latent emptiness close by you.
It is pretty rare that I find myself genuinely blown away by music; I can really only think of a handful of times this has happened in my life — “Late” by Kanye West, “Band On The Run,” “Inner City Blues” and “Fireworks” by Animal Collective, to name a few. I have obviously been deeply moved or impressed often. However, those feelings of stimulation, the acute feeling of astonishment, those goosebumps where it feels as if someone just reached a new rung of emotional expression and creative enrichment, they occur far less often. I’ve learned to cherish those infrequent moments. Memory is becoming a harder and harder thing to retain, understand or even make in the first place. The beauty of inelastic pieces of art is their ability to break this trend. Everything else seems to keep moving; things really do happen so much. Internet time has shattered our ability to process what happened yesterday, let alone five years ago. They say life is short, but it’s really quite long — just long in a way that makes you constantly feel like you’re running out of time (to do what, I’m not too sure).
But singular pieces of music are not subject to this sort of frightening transience. A studio or live recording of a song only happens once; it’ll never sound or be played the exact same way again, like fingerprints or stripes on a tiger. It is in this fortunate staticness that music is imbued with its power to stay with you, in more or less unchanged form, forever, following you but staying the same nonetheless.
Music is, of course, intensely tied to memory. It’s what makes some songs joyful, painful or sentimental to listen to. It’s facts like these that make me think of music as more of a tool and less a monument made purely for aesthetic appraisal.A song has more in common with a hammer than an exhibit at the Louvre. It’s a way of accessing relief or memories (no pun intended) using an unchanging, singular apparatus.
Some of the most powerful tools we have are the ones that give us relief, memory or just time to be okay with being in our own heads for once. Ironically, one of the things most intensely tied to memory for me was cigarettes when I used to smoke (I liked Camel Blues). I say “ironically” because, quite obviously, cigarettes kill you and Aren’t Good. But in those moments in between overnight shifts and classes, I formed sentimental attachments to what I was thinking, feeling and who I was at the time. I remember the weather, what I was wearing and, most importantly, what I was seeking relief from at that very moment very deeply. I would retreat into a cavern of the self; I would start over nine times a day. I think music shares a similar quality. The power of memory or relief inheres in all the little tools that help us live on the day to day; it’s how we survive.
Of course, this attribute of music may be cheapened with the rise of streaming services, which vomit out the entirety of musical history by way of algorithms and quasi-monopolistic business practices. Maybe there’s some truth to this. Maybe music is less a hammer than an antibiotic that’s starting to lose its potency against the resistant germs known as content and capital.
It’s precisely for this reason that I value this quality even more. I’m not going to let any record shop closing or Silicon Valley freak with a god complex take that away from me.
I was blown away the first time I heard “Someone Great” by LCD Soundsystem. The song is a futuristic-sounding (see, I really don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. “Futuristic-sounding?” What? Bro shut up) tribute to lead singer James Murphy’s therapist, who had passed away sometime before the recording. There’s something hilariously New York about the concept of “Someone Great” — a scatterbrained creative writing a farewell letter to his austere and wise shrink seems like the exact kind of hipster trope Murphy would make fun of in a song like “Losing My Edge.” A sizable portion of Murphy’s songwriting is sarcastic; you can almost picture him rolling his eyes after every line. Anyone who pens lyrics like:
“I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.
I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.
I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody I know,”
obviously has no problem poking fun at some of the more obnoxious aspects of being an accredited Cool Person. But in “Someone Great,” Murphy is being completely sincere, and that’s what makes the song so powerful.
This is what I mean when I talk about “mood.” “Someone Great” starts out with brooding synths and a fiercely catchy keyboard line — it sounds like the beginning of a trance song you’d hear in a sketchy warehouse rave where everyone is on ketamine and looks both 19 and 33 at the same time. But what follows, as mentioned above, is this:
“I wish that we could talk about it
But there, that’s the problem
With someone new I couldn’t start it
Too late, for beginnings
The little things that made me nervous
Are gone, in a moment
I miss the way we used to argue
Locked, in your basement
I wake up and the phone is ringing
Surprised, as it’s early
And that should be the perfect warning
That something’s a problem
To tell the truth I saw it coming
The way you were breathing
But nothing can prepare you for it
The voice on the other end
The worst is all the lovely weather
I’m stunned, it’s not raining
The coffee isn’t even bitter
Because, what’s the difference?
There’s all the work that needs to be done
It’s late, for revision
There’s all the time and all the planning
And songs, to be finished”
The first time I heard these lyrics in context with the fun sounds that came before it, I was stunned. Murphy took a danceable electronic piece and turned it into a beautiful ballad about grief. This, once again, is a power music has — it plays with your expectations and flips them upside-down within a six-minute self-contained recording.
A big theme of Murphy’s songwriting is nostalgia —that is, memory. Murphy seems preoccupied with pondering the question, “Is Nostalgia even worth cherishing in the first place?” In some songs he says no, but in other songs, most notably “All My Friends,” he’s saying yes. Murphy’s stream-of-consciousness, conversational style allows you to witness a person arguing back and forth with himself throughout four albums. “Someone Great” is a vessel where we can view Murphy eulogizing a man he may have worked out these exact dueling sentiments with at one point in time.
There’s been no shortage of writing on LCD Soundsystem — they were one of the most critically acclaimed acts of the 2000s and their much-publicized retirement and subsequent revival sparked a predictable amount of criticism and takes. And that’s fine, because I’m not really interested in that at the moment.
What I’m interested in, as I suppose I’ve explained above, are the dynamic ways creative sensibilities can manifest themselves. It’s long been a thing I’m obsessed with; any insight I can gleam from a brilliant musician, director, writer or early 20th-century academic is something I value above almost anything else. Understanding LCD Soundsystem and how James Murphy thinks and expresses himself helps me understand how I think and express myself better as well. Being blown away by a work of art reminds me of our capabilities as people, how we can thrive, how we can better understand each other. As long as we can commit it to memory.
I went through a very irritating and demoralizing bout of writer’s block recently. For reasons I won’t explain (but that aren’t too serious) I’ve been struggling with motivation as well.
It’s funny how things work: Creative energy and mental fortitude almost have to be harnessed and encapsulated like a swarm of bees, or else it’s gone, and you don’t know where it went or when it’ll come back (which is why I’m up at 3 a.m. writing this). I think most people struggle with these things, and it’s important to remember that. We judge others based on a vague set of indicators about what we’ve been told they are: the Wikipedia-like rundown of their characteristics and life circumstances. But there’s a fundamental inconsistency in this sort of thinking. In reality, we ourselves don’t experience life in these sorts of broad, sweeping strokes — we live life on the day to day. People aren’t their benchmarks; they’re the culmination of an unimaginable mass of minute-to-minute feelings and decisions that are almost always influenced by the circumstances they find themselves in. We know this to be true of ourselves, so we should recognize this in others as well. I had an epiphany recently, that self-hatred/criticism might just be outer-judgement of others turned inward, and that the less we do of either, the better off we’ll be (of course, you don’t have to give everyone the benefit of empathy, especially if you likely can’t count on them to do the same. You shouldn’t refrain from hating Jeff Bezos because he’s going through a divorce, or a killer cop because they were “scared” or whatever. I still think Silicon Valley CEOs are drunk with power; I still think there’s something deeply wrong with you if you work in finance or Big Law. I’m still going to talk shit. Sorry).
I didn’t learn any of this from therapy; I learned it, in part, through trying to understand others’ creativity and ways of expressing themselves. I save some money that way.
I cured my writer’s block by, get this, changing the fucking font on my document, from Times New Roman to Merriwhether. There was something funny and humbling about this, one of those occasional reminders that your brain really is just a web of nerves that is susceptible to the most banal of linguistic and visual tricks. It reminded me not to take things so seriously. It also helped me understand myself better.