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Review: LCD Soundsystem justifies its return on ‘American Dream’

Back in 2011, the Brooklyn-based band LCD Soundsystem performed an over three-hour live show at Madison Square Garden—a show that was meant to be its final performance. Tickets sold out immediately, and thousands of people showed up to see the band close out its celebrated, decade-long career.

Throughout the night, devoted fans danced as the band powered through a career-spanning set. Comedian Reggie Watts and members of Arcade Fire made guest appearances on stage, and Aziz Ansari could be seen crowd-surfing in the audience. At the show’s end, hundreds of white balloons fell down from the ceiling onto the crowd during an emotional performance of the band’s ballad “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” For LCD Soundsystem—one of the best bands to come out of New York in the last 20 years—this was a fitting end.

But now, less than a decade later, frontman James Murphy has brought the band back with a  fourth studio album, “American Dream.” It’s easy to see why some people might be skeptical—or even nervous. After all, the only thing worse than a great band breaking up is a great band getting back together—shortly after its huge “farewell” show—only to release a mediocre album. But thankfully, Murphy, the band’s principal songwriter, has enough self-awareness to prevent that from happening.

“American Dream” brings back LCD Soundsystem’s familiar dance-punk style. Murphy still wears his musical influences on his sleeve. Many of these songs are reminiscent of artists in Murphy’s own record collection: Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Can and Kraftwerk. Yet the album never feels like a cheap imitation or a rehash of old ideas.

In fact, a number of these songs feel like a progression in the band’s songwriting, and the lyrics show a renewed sense of sincerity and self-reflection. “You made me throw my hands at my own tradition/And then you had a laugh at my inhibitions,” Murphy sings on the song “I Used To.”

After years away from this musical project, Murphy has had some time to think things over. He comments on personal issues like getting older or losing friends. The lyrics also deal with broader topics, like the growing sense of urgency in American pop music or a general dissatisfaction with the vapidity of American life.

But also present is a sense of musical maturation, evident on songs like “Oh Baby,” the album’s sprawling opener. This track may be harder to dance to, but the band is able to find an oddly comforting landscape amidst the song’s towering synth chords.

About midway through the album comes “How Do You Sleep,” now one of the most challenging songs in LCD Soundsystem’s discography. It’s shadowy and monolithic as it contemplates greed and separation over the course of nine minutes. Five minutes pass before any sense of a welcoming beat emerges. However, it subtly shifts during the latter half into something confident and danceable while still retaining its dark tone.

The most enjoyable moments on “American Dream” come when the band sticks to its strengths – a solid amalgamation of post-punk, synth pop, and dance music. On “Other Voices,” Murphy rambles about some dismal postmodern environment, while backed by chaotic synthesizers and sequenced analog sounds.

And the song “Emotional Haircut” features some of the band’s most entertaining lyrics – “The look of great concern in your eyes and your surprise at my emotional haircut” – since 2007’s “Sound of Silver.” As always, Murphy finds a perfect balance between humor and desperation.

It is strange to have LCD Soundsystem back after such an intentionally dramatic end, but this is clearly something Murphy is aware of. He commented on this unexpected return in an interview with the New York Times. “If we’re going to play again, we really have to justify it,” he said. “We’ve got to do something good enough.”

On “American Dream,” the band certainly does something good enough. It’s nice to have them back.

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Nic Castillon

Nic Castillon

Nic is an Arts & Culture writer at the Daily Emerald.