James Murphy has managed to do something very curious. He’s attained a position in the minds of LCD Soundsystem fans as the paragon of a kind of lazy, bored, bitterly self-aware New York cool, but he’s accomplished this by painting himself as both an eager participant in and occasional victim of the merry-go-round wreck that is youth culture. Starting with “Losing My Edge” but really picking up steam on 2007’s Sound of Silver, he’s been examining himself DJing at fashion shows while broadcasting dispatches from the astral plane of hip, solidifying his image as an occasionally self-deprecating, cooler-than-thou emissary to anyone who’s ever been at a party or club and thought, “Oh God, what is the point?”
Murphy in interviews comes across as someone who would work to actively dispel that image, or at least regret its existence, but all that This Is Happening can do about that is give it a fresh coat of paint and a nice display case. From the first note of Murphy’s dry vocal on the album’s opening track, This Is Happening exudes the resignation and dissatisfaction that we’ve come to expect from LCD Soundsystem, and by the time he yells “Dance Yrself Clean,” it sounds far more like a sardonic taunt than it does for a command to have a good time.
Other songs seem more directly personal, like the Heroes-referencing “All I Want” and album closer “Home,” but the unrest and longing are still as broad and relatable as ever. It’s really this personal element that humanizes LCD Soundsystem’s free-form ruminations on what we do to feel good, and dispels any suspicions that Murphy is just a dyspeptic DJ, making dance music because it’s all he knows how to do.
It’s important to stress, though, is that this is dance music. Even though Murphy sounds more than a little tongue-in-cheek when he shouts to “dance yourself clean,” by the time that song’s galaxy-sized synth drops he’s not actually giving you a choice. It’s that type of lyrically and aesthetically cerebral dance music, elements which, make something more fun to dance to. The album’s only real certified disco banger, “One Touch,” has lyrics so vague it’s hard to draw any clues from them, but by the time Nancy Whang’s always welcome vocal chirps climb on top of of the song’s central bass loop, it’s clear that you need to be moving.
This Is Happening is a record that knows — made by a band that knows — that disco is better when it’s just not so satisfied with itself. It’s better when it examines its own utility, the conditions in which it thrives, and the human result in dance culture; the kids going home alone at the end of the night, more sober than they’d like to be. That’s really the stuff that brought all of the rock kids to Murphy’s table, but This Is Happening also knows that they stay to dance after dessert.