Then You Think Again | Sound Of Silver Turns 10
Presumably to save us all a lot of time, hipper than thou taste-makers Vice published an article back in January that detailed the musical milestones occuring this year, ranging from the genuinely thrilling (will staunch anti capitalists Radiohead cash in on Ok Computer’s 20th), to the slightly exploitative (10 years since Britney had that ‘mega lols’ meltdown), to the ever so slightly disinheriting (fuck me is Stronger really a decade old?). On the topic of LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver celebrating its 10th birthday, the tomb of cool described it as being a moment where people would finally have nostalgia for music that was entirely based on nostalgia.
Even within a discography as bullet proof as LCDs, Sound of Silver stands with immense ease as James Murphy’s crowning achievement. The eponymous debut record in 2005 felt more like a collection of tracks for Murphy to spin in his legendary, Herculean DJ sets (‘On Repeat’ being the acid house track, ‘Great Release’ being the ambient Eno anthem, ‘Daft Punk…’ being the indie tune, ‘Disco Infiltrator’ being….you know), and although Murphy’s auteur sensibilities would push them to the forefront on 2010’s meticulous This Is Happening, Sound of Silver proved to be the record which has, singularly, James Murphy’s strongest efforts as a songwriter.
Sure, ‘Losing my Edge’ might have been more tongue-in-cheek, and maybe “I Can Change” was the cleverest thing he’d commit to paper, but it was on Silver that he tapped into something that seemed to speak to an entire generation, the experiences they had, the experiences that they wanted to have had, and somehow it seemed as though Murphy was consoling them on what they missed out on. Murphy’s often alluded to this feeling of missing out in interviews – he was the guy raging in his bedroom that he was missing the birth of new wave a couple of hours drive away in New York, instead reading Gravity’s Rainbow in anticipation of when he’d meet downtown hipsters, only to find them aging and boring and falling back to his old friends.
At his best, Murphy is able to combine these themes in a few short lines, self assuredly stating his cool, keeping one eye on the scene but never quite losing sight of what really matters. It’s vital to bear in mind that Murphy was something of an old hand when he started to hit his stride musically, and at 35 he was an aging scenester when Silver dropped. In a way, this made him a sort of older brother figure for a generation of music fans, the older brother that heard you listening to Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Jeff Buckley, Korn or the Killers and who in turn played you Big Black, Joy Division, New Order, Harry Nilson and Suicide. That’s largely why I’d argue the decade of Silver has brought about untold amounts of cynicism from music journalists across the web. It was the album that helped them to shape their idea of what being cool could be.
David Lee Roth famously said that most music journos liked Elvis Costello for the precise reason that most music journos looked like Elvis Costello; replace journalist with blogger and you’ve effectively got a updated version in James Murphy. His opus turning 10 is a fairly effective drum beat that, for a certain generation of fans, it’s impossible to ignore; they’ve aged, they’ve become the ones with the faces like dads that are impossibly sad, looking at the kids that are impossibly thin. The waves of timing are moving on, in other words. Being ever so slightly younger than that generation, being so bold as to suggest that I might possibly be one of those impossibly thin (sorry) youths, Sound of Silver takes on a bit of a different meaning.
James Murphy is just under a quarter of a century older than me, far older, barring divine intervention, than any of us could reasonably expect a sibling to be. For people around my age (22), it was never really a case that Murphy would be an older brother type figure but rather more of a cool uncle character, the one that scratches his stubble and drinks PBR, tapping his foot along to Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” whilst your dad wedding dances in his Jeremy Clarkson leather jacket to Springsteen’s cover. Where people of a certain age might face a crisis upon realising that the dude that that gurned and made some of the best music of the past decade is now trying to scrape enough cash together to keep his wine bar afloat, for people my age it sort of stands as a piece of elderly wisdom as to how stupid the pursuit of trying to constantly be cool is.
LCD Soundsystem probably entered my orbit for the first time as part of the ubiquitous Grand Theft Auto 4, which I played obsessively at age 13. I was a gangling, spotty, shy teenager who, like basically everybody else, just wanted to fit in. GTA was something that provided a lot of solace because it let me pretend for stretches (I’m frankly embarrassed by the length of these strengths) that I could be cool. Driving around a digitized New York (still, unquestionably the epitome of cool in the western world) in itself was a treat, but the games open-world nature meant that I was able to play out scenes from my favourite movies, and even craft some of my own. This was underscored by the uniformly excellent soundtrack that Rockstar compiled for the game, where a slip of the thumb could bring you The Stooges, Kanye, Fela Kunti, The Pumpkins, The Chemical Brothers or The Cro Mags.
Tucked away in there was ‘Get Innocuous!’, Silver’s excellent opening track. Exemplary of what Murphy termed the “brick laying method”, Innocuous! builds its groove with in a way that makes overt its genius; deliberate hissing 808s gradually giving way to splashing keyboards which give way to a percussion-y bassline that gives way to Murphy and Nancy Wang’s Bowie-in-Kreutzberg vocal entwine. And so on. I haven’t got a distinctive memory of actually hearing the song in GTA 4 but the fact that it was included in the game feels somehow appropriate, as though it’d validate what I thought about it making me a bit more cool.
As I got older, I gradually started to notice LCD more and more. As an idiotic, die hard hardcore fan, ‘North American Scum’ was a song that made synthesisers palpable, opening the door to dance music. ‘Watch The Tapes’ and ‘US V Them’ made a compelling argument that being danceable didn’t make something artistically bankrupt. The genius of Murphy was not only his ability to cull sounds from a wide variety of especially hip influences. Like drinking in The Bernard Shaw, reading Kerouac or thinking ____ was cool, just by listening, by being there, Murphy made you feel like you where onto something that others weren’t. This is the central promise that exists at the centre of Sound of Silver, but the brilliance is that it’s a promise that Murphy himself never falls for, indeed it comes across as a promise that he wants you to refute.
As a songwriter, Murphy always goes to great lengths to try and justify any approaches that he makes towards pretension. He explains in a particularly brilliant scene in the bands farewell doc Shut Up and Play the Hits that he defends pretentiousness because as a pretentious 16 year old he went to great lengths to try and read Gravity’s Rainbow, coming out the other side having read Gravity’s Rainbow.
In other words, pretension can be alright just so long as its not entirely empty grandstanding. In doing this, Murphy refutes the entire idea of what it even means to be cool, maybe best seen on ‘North American Scum’, which takes pride in being thought of as crass and over the top, when the alternative is to pretend to be affectless and aloof, something that he admits, in song, that he would be able to manage himself. Silver is peppered with brilliant moments like this, and it’s a record that becomes more real to me as I’ve got older. Murphy is right, for example, when he says that most the bars you’d dream of drinking in generally turn out to be the places where, with all disrespect, the boring collect (sorry Workmans). His account of missing somebody on ‘Someone Great’ became all the more real for me when I found out that one of my best friends was moving to the other side of the world. These realisations are things that only really come with the more experiences that you have in life, and are why Sound of Silver is the perfect album to grow up with, evoking that old cliché that the older you are, the smarter somebody else seems.
Murphy is acutely aware of how the vast majority life is basically wandering from one fuck-up to the next, another important lesson in growing up. This helps to keep the record free from judgement, and it helps convey what’s generally thought of as being the hardest thing to convey to somebody, that they should stop being so hard on themselves dwelling on what could have been. The point where I really started to get obsessed with LCD was aged 19, which is also the age that I spent about a year getting into ecstasy. In hindsight, this went completely hand in hand with a mounting depression that was the result of being 19 and thinking I was entirely grown up. Looking back at that time, I think I get what Murphy meant by wanting to feel like a teenager without the real life emotions of a teenager, which is one of the most beautiful statements on aging ever to come out of pop music.
When LCD where resurrected last year it was pretty easy to feel betrayed, considering how much they milked what was supposedly their final round of gigs. Surely LCD, the gatekeepers of cool, would be above doing the things that mere mortal bands did, going on the reunion circuit for cash. At the end of the day though, who really gives a shit. Life’s pretty complicated and I’m sure Murphy has a lot of responsibilities that come before some stupid idea about what I means to be cool. I’d actually end up missing LCD’s stop in Dublin because I’d be living in Canada at the time. On the last big night out that my house had there before we all went home to our respective countries, the last song that the DJ happened to spin was ‘All My Friends’, perfect for that mellow, happy sad, balmy August night. I wouldn’t have traded a single stupid decision for another five years of life.