Been pondering this one for a while and, as I possibly implied in the blog about James Murphy’s “Greenberg” soundtrack, it’s hard not to conclude that the third LCD Soundsystem album is a bit of a letdown.
A letdown, that is, in the context of “Sound Of Silver” being my favourite album of, what was it, 2007, plus there being a pretty excellent debut album at the back of the racks and a clutch of singles that probably rank with the very best of the last decade.
By most measures, “This Is Happening” would look like a pretty good album. It begins quite brilliantly with “Dance Yourself Clean”; archly tumbling percussion, soft vocals and harmonies that package Murphy’s borderline misanthropy in amusingly meek tones, a quietness that betrays this is one of the tracks here that Dave Sardy hasn’t mixed. Then, three minutes in, the beats and synths are radically turned up, Murphy tries on a yowling soul falsetto and we’re off; nine minutes of dynamic, engrossing music. “You’re blowing Marxism to pieces,” I think he’s singing.
Great, then, and “This Is Happening” stays that way for a good while. “Drunk Girls” is a broad and tremendously jolly knees-up pitched halfway between Blur’s “Girls And Boys” and Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging”. “One Touch” is fabulously intricate acid and redolent of their earlier singles, Murphy using his best Phil Oakey baritone as a counterpoint to Nancy Wang’s yelps. “All I Want” is back on the Bowie jag, being ostensibly “Heroes” bent round a whole load of Eno circa “Another Green World”. Which works for me. “Change” is more or less straight-up synthpop, impeccably rendered.
Just over halfway, and it looks good. But where, in the wake of “Sound Of Silver”, you’d be expecting the album’s emotional heart, that brilliant knack that Murphy has of sounding exciting and elegaic, of being tremendously hip while showing his age, instead we get “Hit”. “Hit” takes nine slightly drab minutes to let Murphy whinge about his record label wanting him to, yes, write hits, and while his generally curmudgeonly nature has always been an asset, you’d have expected him to be cleverer than building a record around what is basically an argument with an A&R.
It’s certainly churlish to lose faith in an album because of a sour-flavoured lyric, but “This Is Happening” does seem to wander out of focus from “Hit” on. “Pow Pow” is effective David Byrne plus drum science, but “Somebody’s Calling Me” is an immensely pedantic homage to Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” that, after seven minutes, sucks most of the remaining life out of the album. After that, multiple listens have frequently found me completely forgetting that the entirely pretty closer, “What You Need”, is actually playing.
Skip “Hit” and “Somebody’s Calling Me”, and it’s just fine. But “This Is Happening” is cursed by lofty expectations: there’s no way James Murphy fluked his earlier successes, little plausibility in the idea that he’s creatively exhausted. He should’ve been on course to make a really wonderful album, and this is mainly a mere good one. Letdowns have been much bigger, I suppose.