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LCD Soundsystem Ruvan
James MurphyPhoto by Ruvan Wijesooriya

Looking back at LCD Soundsystem’s love affair with nostalgia

Read an excerpt of a new 33⅓ book exploring the recently reunited New York band’s breakthrough second album Sound of Silver

This is an excerpt from Ryan Leas’ new book about LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver. Published as part of the 33⅓ series, the book explores the New York band’s second album and its impact on popular culture, with the following extract looking at their relationship with nostalgia. It’s published ahead of the recently reunited group’s headline appearance at London’s Lovebox Festival this weekend.

Here’s the thing about LCD Soundsystem and nostalgia: it ultimately doesn’t matter that much how James Murphy or his music were nostalgic themselves. The fact is that he made music that elicited nostalgia in his listeners. And it was a borrowed strain of nostalgia for times we ourselves didn’t experience, for which we ourselves had no empirical memory. We’ve come up in an era full of reboots and reunions, full of franchises coming back from the dead and reissues and the ability to access anything we want, anytime. History collapses in on itself. Revival cycles move in hyperspeed and overlap and congeal. It isn’t so much about borrowed nostalgia, the stuff of bands on the Lower East Side trying to recapture some lost sense of New York coolness, in a particular style. It’s more about received nostalgia. A more ethereal brand of nostalgia that comes from consuming media from all eras at once, and from consuming and/or making new art in that environment. The ’80s might be unremembered, but they also feel tangible, as if we did live through them but the memories are buried in a dreamlike fog.

This is how the nostalgic qualities of Sound Of Silver have always struck me – because it suggests several different eras at once, it feels like a nostalgic patchwork written in the language of today, rather than a pastiche of one specific erstwhile trend. All of those moments that evoke the feeling of time passing or of aging – the strain of “Get Innocuous!,” the lonely celebration of “All My Friends,” the moving-on remembrance of “Sound Of Silver,” the forlorn disenchantment of “New York, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down” – also evoke received nostalgia in a listener twenty years Murphy’s junior. These are not experiences we were explicitly there for, and they aren’t experiences we explicitly remember. But in the same way this album can warp and play with your relationship to your own age and moment in life, it can complicate the experience of nostalgia as an adult in the ’00s or ’10s.

“The more romantic, wide-eyed brand of nostalgia is something nobody would associate with Murphy. His nostalgia runs alongside the way he writes about aging, meaning that there’s a muted weariness to it all”

Sound Of Silver is far from an aggressive, in-your-face album, but it does still have that level of inaccessible cool to its sound. There’s a dryness, a wittiness, a characteristic suggesting it’s going to do its thing whether you’re there or not and it isn’t going to try too hard to win you over. Musically speaking, it isn’t the sort of thing that’s obviously drenched in nostalgia. We’re not talking about a maximalist synth-pop work of romanticism here. Something like M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a much more obvious work of nostalgia, from an artist whose entire project for a time revolved around the very idea of nostalgia and its role in our culture today. In fact, the more romantic, wide-eyed brand of nostalgia is something nobody would associate with Murphy. His nostalgia runs alongside the way he writes about aging, meaning that there’s a muted weariness to it all. Ever the technical mind, he wields it like just another tool in the studio.

That changes in the middle of Sound Of Silver, where the dual titans of “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” are placed alongside one another. These are two of the most nakedly emotional songs Murphy has ever released, and two LCD Soundsystem songs that grapple with loss in some form, and nostalgia for times before that, or at least for times different than this minute right now.

In “All My Friends,” you can hear it in Murphy’s voice throughout—that Pink Floyd reference, the five or ten year chunks of life that passed just like that. Part of the reason that Murphy’s specific personal meanings in the lyrics of “All My Friends” get overshadowed by its much larger impact, however, is the arrangement itself. There are certain songs that stumble on some hidden series of notes and chords that automatically do something to you as a human. There’s no real reason why the interaction between that piano loop and longing guitar part in “All My Friends” should automatically scream nostalgia in big neon-soaked letters. But they do, especially in the moments that pass for choruses: when Murphy first sings the “You spent the first five years...” line and that melancholic synth line joins in over the piano, it’s leveling. It’s a masterwork of incremental steps of drama, taking simple instrumental parts that might not stand so powerfully on their own and stacking them up into a track that swells like a wave of rushing memories.

In the era post-LCD retirement, and now in the era of the LCD reunion, it would seem that “All My Friends” would live on as the most nostalgic and sentimental of any LCD song. On Sound Of Silver, “Someone Great” might outstrip it in that regard. Or, at least: while “All My Friends” is the emotional peak of LCD Soundsystem’s entire discography, “Someone Great” is the song that does almost go headlong into that romantic synth-pop sort of nostalgia. There’s something in the vague atmosphere of it that compels you to pick certain directions.

“While ‘All My Friends’ is the emotional peak of LCD Soundsystem’s entire discography, ‘Someone Great’ is the song that does almost go headlong into that romantic synth-pop sort of nostalgia”

Like “All My Friends,” it’s built on notes and changes that appear programmed to worm their way into your mind and trigger all the most wistful corners of your memory. The synth layers of “Someone Great” are, similar to the new wave they reference, music with an ineffable power. One layer is that oscillating current sound, coming in and out of focus like a struggling transmission – Murphy uses it like otherworldly, programmed strings. There are the gurgling, rubbery synths that function as a lead riff, moving quickly like synapses firing. Each of these is anchored by that deeper synth line, the one that’s almost like a thundering lead bass part yet also one of the key melodic elements of the song. That series of notes is calibrated, through some mystic means, towards bringing you back to a place, and that might be a place you’ve never actually visited.

The instrumental of “Someone Great” was heard before Sound Of Silver. It was part three of “45:33,” the longform composition Murphy wrote after being commissioned by Nike to make a piece of music designed for running. There were no vocals on that portion of “45:33,” but the song still had much of the same impact as the version that appeared on Sound Of Silver. Situated amidst uptempo, funky sections, it was a bizarre inner- and outer-space detour amidst the work, and it was already mesmerizing. All the power of how those synths were arranged on top of each other was already there; it already had that impact.

Of course, the lyrics add a whole different level to it. Murphy has never talked about the actual meaning of the song to him. Clearly, the song is about loss in some capacity – the part that’s hard to decipher is whether it was a close friend, a lover, a family member, or a child. Personally, the line “You’re smaller than my wife imagined / Surprised, you were human” always made me think it was about a miscarriage, or losing a child, or having to give away a child. Either way, it’s heartbreaking.

“Murphy has never talked about the actual meaning of the song (‘Someone Great’) to him. Clearly, the song is about loss in some capacity – the part that’s hard to decipher is whether it was a close friend, a lover, a family member, or a child... Either way, it’s heartbreaking”

The song starts in stasis (“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”) and moves towards an inevitable fall (“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”) and the numbed sleepwalk through the aftermath (“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?”). That inevitability recurs later, in the repetition of “And it keeps coming / And it keeps coming / And it keeps coming / Till the day, it stops.” The sadness of the instrumentation starts to take on a psychological wooziness, a portrait of a person seeing some bit of doom on the horizon, remaining incapable of avoiding it, and remaining incapable of knowing how to deal with it after the fact.

Except: the song does work towards resolution, and towards hope. “When someone great is gone” is the equivalent of “If I could see all my friends tonight,” the climactic refrain Murphy sings at the end, the one that either brings you to your knees or has you singing along, exorcising whatever you need the song to exorcise. That’s why Murphy’s remained steadfast on his decision to leave “Someone Great” unexplained – it’s one of those songs that works better, that hits harder and wider, for you being able to write your own personal meaning into lyrics that are idiosyncratic enough to be special but not so literal as to be a direct story rather than an abstract narrative. At the very end of the song, Murphy brings the vocal back down to a calmer, pensive place, singing “We’re safe, for the moment / Saved / For the moment.” “When someone great is gone” is the moment of resolution – this is a thing that happened and here is the awful fallout, but this is a part of my life and your life. “We’re safe, for the moment” is the glimmer of hope at the end, the acknowledgment that these things are rarely resolved so cleanly, but that there is some way life goes on. That adds a wrinkle to the instrumentation of “Someone Great.” It’s one of those sad songs that offers transcendence from that sadness at the same time.