This Is Happening (You Cannot Change the Channel)

I think, in part because our national attention span is so short (know who won American Idol the other night? In a year, you won’t give a shit. I’ve saved an entire year by not giving a shit today) and in part because it’s so easy to consume a lot of different styles of music these days, there will probably never again be Big Years in Music like 1977 when the Clash and the Ramones and the Sex Pistols all blasted into the collective consciousness with something fresh and new and exciting. You can mourn that if you want, but from where I’m sitting, 2010 is shaping up to be My Favorite Year in Music for A Good Long While. Sure, it’s not going to spawn any movements as vital as punk (but look what “punk” is  in 2010! People think Green Day is punk, for Christ’s sake. Although we do have the Future of the Left and, therefore, hope), but nearly every album that I’ve looked forward to this year has easily met (She & Him Volume Two) or massively exceeded (the National’s High Violet and the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever) my expectations. It’s not quite June and I’m literally drowning in music that I love.

So let’s let the lovefest continue for LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, shall we? I know it’s funnier to hate albums and there are albums that I have in the stack that I’m reasonably sure I won’t like (please prove me wrong, Sage Francis. Please?), but honesty trumps humor in my book. So I’d be doing us both a disservice if I told you that This Is Happening was something less than stellar, ass-shaking good times. Also, I’d be lying to you if I said that. This Is Happening is 100% certified Ass-Shaking Good Times.

The genius of James Murphy (he probably wouldn’t use that word, but – clearly – I would) is that he seems to intuitively understand what is great about myriad styles of music and he routinely spins that knowledge into gold. In a lot of ways, This Is Happening is the poppiest LCD Soundsystem album yet (lead single “Drunk Girls,” “I Can Change,” and album highlight “All I Want”) and it’s still freaky, funky, and weird (“Dance Yrself Clean,” “You Wanted a Hit,” and “Pow Pow”). In other words, it’s everything I’ve come to expect from a guy whose debut album featured the blissful pop of “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and the angry punk of “Movement” (which is, by the way, one of the best songs to run to when you need a little extra inspiration) before ending with “Great Release,” which is one of this young century’s totally overlooked Beautiful Songs.

This has nothing to do with my review of this album per se, but I want to tell you before I forget: I heard a person at the National show last week say he wasn’t really into LCD Soundsystem and then he said he couldn’t wait to see Matisyahu live. Now, I realize that Matisyahu strokes the musical G-spot of all five of you Hasidic frat guys out there, but he is to reggae what John Mayer is to the blues (and if you took that as some kind of endorsement of Matisyahu’s often out-of-tune, banal ramblings, let’s face it: you’re probably John Mayer). All I’m saying is, if you don’t really get LCD Soundsystem but are exalting the musical prowess of Matisyahu, I’m going to have a hard time taking you seriously.

Well, maybe it does have something to do with this review. See, James Murphy kinda does well what Matisyahu does so poorly. Matisyahu’s synthesis of Judaism and reggae is clunky at best* and gimmicky at worst. Murphy, on the other hand, respects his record collection enough to practice the musical alchemy a little more carefully. This Is Happening‘s nods to 1970s David Bowie (to whom we should all nod, if we enjoy, you know, good music) are neither accidental nor clumsily handled. James Murphy is able to make something new out of what came before whereas Matisyahu is only able to make me angry out of what came before.

Let’s take, for example, This Is Happening’s “All I Want.” While the lead guitar line is designed to recall Bowie’s “Heroes,” James Murphy sings, “All I want/ is your pity/ all I want/ is your bitter tears.” In Murphy’s song, we can’t even be heroes for a day because, let’s be honest here, we’re not that selfless. Even for one day. Murphy gets away with this kind of biting honesty all over This Is Happening because he couches it in a healthy dose of self-deprecation: “love is an open book/ to a verse of your bad poetry” has teeth, but they bite Murphy as well when he adds, “and this is coming from me.” In the same song, he promises he can change “if it makes you fall in love.” These aren’t starstruck love songs, they’re the more pragmatic words of weary experience – I can give you something if you give me something. Makes This Is Happening sound like a downer, doesn’t it? Well, if you set those themes to indelible beats (more of the genius of James Murphy – I do not own another album where seven out of nine tracks exceed six minutes in length. Murphy routinely eclipses that mark on This Is Happening but he never bores me), you end up with another excellent, honest, funny, LCD Soundsystem record.

In fact, James Murphy really only lies to you once on This Is Happening, but it’s a doozy. On “You Wanted a Hit,” he sings, “You wanted it smart/ but honestly, we’re not smart/ we fake it all the time.” Bullshit, Mr. Murphy. You know exactly what you’re doing and, while you may honestly lack the ego to know that it’s awesome, I can assure you that it is. I didn’t really want a hit and I don’t know if I got one by any traditional metric**, but this album is fucking stupendous and that’s really all I wanted.

*Before people get all “You’re an Anti-Semite” on me, I would like to emphatically point out that I don’t doubt for a minute that Matisyahu is sincere in his religious beliefs. But, like many Christian rock bands, his faith does not necessarily translate into good  music, which matters a whole lot more to me than which Sky-Dad he believes in (or even if he believes in a Sky-Dad. I really don’t care). Who honestly gives a shit about Bob Marley’s religion (he was Rastafarian. They worship marijuana) when they listen to “One Love”? The music is amazing. But for the record, a God who would create pigs and not want you to eat bacon is unfit to govern the universe.

**Fuck Sound-Scan. If you think that the only good albums are the ones everyone’s buying, you’re the kind of person who might’ve embraced Nazism to keep up with the Goebbelses. A lot of people bought Frampton Comes Alive! and that album is a crime against truth, beauty, and humanity. Also, Adolf Hitler invented the “talk-box” effect in the late 1930s to torture the Jews. So every time you listen to “Show Me the Way,” it’s like killing Anne Frank all over again.


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