By the time James Murphy made it to the studio to record LCD Soundsystem’s second album, he’d already been a live sound engineer, a bouncer, label owner, prolific remixer, had challenged (all of) Oasis to a fight in the mid-’90s, contributed production work to David Holmes’ seminal ‘Bow Down To The Exit Sign’, said no to a collab with Janet Jackson, and turned down a job as the first staff writer on what became Seinfeld.
His kaleidoscopic journey to LCD’s formation played a huge part in Murphy’s songwriting and lyrical approach, no more than on their breakthrough record ‘Losing My Edge’. It was a tongue-in-cheek diary entry for every key moment throughout dance and rock history, name-checking everyone from Can and Gil Scott-Heron to Larry Levan and Daft Punk. Inspired by the copycat DJs who ‘borrowed nostalgia’ to piggyback on the success of Murphy and DFA’s NYC parties, ‘Losing My Edge’ was as witty as it was resentful.
Murphy explained: “When I was DJing, playing Can, Liquid Liquid, ESG, all that kind of stuff, I became kind of cool for a moment, which was a total anomaly. And when I heard other DJs playing similar music, I was like: ‘Fuck! I’m out of a job!’ I was afraid that this newfound coolness was going to go away, and that’s where ‘Losing My Edge’ comes from. It is about being horrified by my own silliness.”
Obsessed with failure — he hung the letter from Seinfeld in the DFA office for years as a reminder of “the biggest mistake of my life" — ‘Losing My Edge’ saw Murphy stumble into acclaim. It eventually led to LCD’s self-titled debut LP, a double album flecked with the varied influences of the acts referenced towards the end of the landmark track. With singles such as ‘Tribulations’, ‘Movement’ and the Grammy-nominated ‘Daft Punk Is Playing At My House’, the punk-influenced dancefloor sound resonated with what became a second coming of ‘dance rock’, and propelled LCD to the forefront of a peripheral movement that included Hot Chip, Soulwax, Cut Copy and Bloc Party.
When the time came to record the follow up to ‘LCD Soundsystem’, the pressure Murphy put on himself began to mount. In a 2010 interview, he claimed, “Making ‘Sound Of Silver’ was very emotional, at times I just hated making that record.” An unlikely breakthrough came in the form of a commission from Nike, who asked Murphy to create a long-form piece of music to accompany joggers, with a defined brief that relieved him from the daunting nature of open-ended creativity.
“I actually really liked the treatment they sent out, because it was really specific: ‘We want a 45-minute run, we want a seven-minute warm-up, we want a seven-minute cool-down, we need some peaks throughout’,” he told Pop Matters in 2007. “I was like, ‘This is actually awesome, to have this list of crap that you’re supposed to do, just to keep yourself going’.”
The piece became known as ‘45:33’, and some of the motifs throughout made their way onto ‘Sound Of Silver’, most notably the pulsating synth tones of one of the album’s highlights, ‘Someone Great’. Despite some of the runners it was originally intended for thinking it was “garbage,” the project turned the ‘SOS’ studio sessions from a chore to a challenge, and eventually a triumph. “Doing the Nike thing saved my ass,” Murphy explained. “I did the first half of the album, and I wanted to fucking jump into a river with weights around my neck. Then I stopped and did the Nike thing for two months, and that really just calmed me down and opened me up, and the second half of the record was actually a real pleasure.”
The album dropped to widespread critical acclaim, with Dorian Lynskey at The Guardian calling it, “dance-rock for grown-ups: extraordinary”, and Pitchfork giving it a 9.3. The record also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Electronic/Dance album.
As you might expect from a man with a wildly meandering CV and restless self-awareness, ‘Sound Of Silver’s themes dart from song to song — ‘Get Innocuous’ echoes the homogenization of taste, bluntly claiming, ‘You can normalize, don’t it make you feel alive?’, while ‘North American Scum’ dryly dictates the global lap of apology many Americans were making during George W Bush’s time in the White House.
Later, the aforementioned ‘Someone Great’ strikingly reflects on loss and the breakdown of relationships. The album as a whole is dedicated to Bulgarian-born psychiatrist Dr. George Kamen, with the liner notes reading, “One of the great minds of his or any generation.” Though Murphy has kept the true meaning of ‘Someone Great’ to himself, many speculated the patient-therapist relationship detailed is a reference to Murphy’s supposed long-time psychiatrist. “I just think it’s unnecessary, because it’s personal,” he told The Quietus in 2010, of revealing song meanings. “Songs are songs, and to reduce them is to waste them."
One of ‘Sound Of Silver’s less subtle references comes in the form of ‘All My Friends’, an anthemic two-chord syncopation, building from meek piano plonks to a storming, chaotic refrain of, “Where are your friends tonight?” It was heavily influenced by Joy Divison’s ‘Transmission’, and remains one of the best examples of Murphy’s distinct ability to fuse sorrow and reflection with fun and dancing. Though Murphy himself was initially embarrassed by it, finding it, “too poppy, almost cloying,” Pitchfork went on to name it the second-best track of the 2000s decade.
While both ‘Us vs Them’ and ‘Watch The Tapes’ remind us of DFA’s original ethos of “something you can fucking dance to,” it’s the closing track ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’ that brings home the message of ‘Sound Of Silver’. In an era where ‘billionaire mayor’ Michael Bloomberg was fast-tracking gentrification across the city, the song reflects on loss and growing older, with, “Oh, take me off your mailing list, for the kids who think it still exists” a direct reference to DFA’s early mailing-list invite-only parties. As the song concedes, “Maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right,” it’s a fitting ending for an album where wry arrogance and unsettling self-doubt sit starkly side-by-side.
LCD’s transition from indie-dance darlings on the fringe to one of America’s most influential bands was a tough one to swallow for Murphy, whose dwindling grasp on the ‘coolness’ that first inspired ‘Losing My Edge’ came back to haunt him.
“I spent my whole life wanting to be cool... but I’ve come to realize that coolness doesn’t exist the way I once assumed,” he told The Guardian. Later, in an interview with the New Yorker, he said: “I understand that if someone’s going to make me his idea of cool I can’t control that.”
His lack of control led to LCD’s disbandment in 2011, and his on-going restlessness — plus a conversation with David Bowie — led to their reformation five years later. ‘Sound Of Silver’ remains a snapshot of a fragile time for Murphy, as he put his own identity on trial across the record. The result is a defiant and defining statement, and it remains LCD’s most ambitious project to date.