Sunday, May 30, 2010

This Is Happening

This is Happening
LCD Soundsyste

LCD Soundsystem were founded on the premise of self-awareness. James Murphy, the singer and songwriter, has spent all three albums embodying the persona of a man aware of himself to the point of paralysis. How much of this is actually a persona remains unclear, which is part of the appeal. Their early singles, such as "Losing My Edge," were ironic slams against the knowingly hip. So it seems appropriate that such a knowing band would make their final album knowing it going in. This is, I'm sad to say, supposed to be the final LCD Soundsystem album. And it's written all over its face. Or grooves.

The lyrics, which Murphy tends to extemporize in the last possible moments, reference going home everywhere. Out of nine tracks, at least four of them explicitly say a variation on "take me home." Murphy is tired, and doesn't want to play anymore. At least, not as LCD.

So it's fitting that This is Happening isn't a big leap forward for the band. It is, in fact, a summation of their previous accomplishments. Each song here can be traced to a previous LCD song.As far as being a survey of their style, it could almost be a Best Of, but for one track ("You Wanted a Hit" never quite works). Murphy has always fascinated with his ability to take major landmarks of pop and tack them to other bits, making something new. David Bowie has always been a favourite, but here it rises to new levels. If David Bowie was working in 2010 instead of 1980, I think it's very possible that this is the music he'd be making. "All I Want" uses the guitar from 'Heroes,' and "Drunk Girls" uses an ever-so-Bowie two-note hook.

Oh, it's also hilarious. "Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut: It comes back, but it's never the same." Brilliant.

Sound of Silver was great because it took the knowing sense of humour from the first LCD Soundsystem album and tacked it onto a real emotional core. I don't care for the first LCD album, because it's too removed. "All My Friends" and "Someone Great" were songs from Silver that drew you in and slowly devastated you with their perfect observations, and they helped make Sound of Silver a great, great album. I'm not so sure This is Happening is on the same level, but it's damn close. And that's better than most bands could manage. Let alone a band that tries as hard as LCD Soundsystem.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

High Violet

High Violet
The National

The National's lyricist and lead singer, Matt Berninger, has a gift for summarising the desperation of life. Not the epic, Arcade Fire-type, where the world is crashing down on us, nor the Joy Division brand, where everything is miserable. His lyrics, combined with his simple, no-frills delivery, make for quietly devastating statements. Everywhere. And they are, I think, what ultimately make The National special.

The music is great, and I wouldn't call The National a lyric man's band, but everyone has to admit that The National are kind of boring. They make it work, and that in itself is remarkable, because I've heard a thousand bands that sound like them, but none of them are as good. The Dessner twins, responsible for the lion's share of the music on every National album, are reliable. I do not focus on their contributions when I listen to National albums, but I'm trying to balance out my presentation so as not to overlook them. They construct beautiful tracks, and over the last three albums, they've crafted a unique sound for the band. Throughout High Violet's eleven songs, The National sound like no band except The National, which is an impressive thing.

But my attention is on Berninger. During "Conversaton 16," he gently follows up the chorus of "Cos I'm evil" with a simple statement of "I'm a confident liar." He sounds like he dislikes himself as much as the rest of us, but, unlike most singers, he doesn't make the mistake of feeling special for it. It's difficult to quantify, or to relate properly, but it's really an astonishing thing. "I won't be no runaway, cos I won't run," Berninger insists on "Runaway." You can read it one of two ways: The narrator isn't a coward, or the narrator is just too tired to bother fleeing. I always read it the second way, but the ambiguity is what makes it work so well.

This brings us to the album's best track, standing out head-and-shoulders above a set of songs that already stand out head-and-shoulders above most other music of late: "Bloodbuzz Ohio." It is, like "Mistaken for Strangers," the perfect The National song. Peculiarly propulsive drumming beneath a fairly gentle track, and lyric nuggets everywhere. "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe,/ I never thought about love when I thought about home." It may not read like much, but the effect is indescribable. I've listened to this song easily twenty times since last Wednesday, and it hasn't lost any of its effect. It is at once uplifting and humbling. It is massive but remains intimate. "I never married, but Ohio don't remember me." It is the perfection of Berninger's persona, of The National's gently surging sound, and it's the best song you'll hear all year. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is a classic. And, like their last album, Boxer, so is this album.

For a small band from New York, The National have become the forerunners in making Music that Matters. It's a tricky thing to do, and they handle it brilliantly. U2 have been trying to make an album that feels this good for the last 20 years.