Album Analysis | LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
LCD Soundsystem’s 2007 masterpiece blends electronic dance and indie rock to devastating effect, while showcasing insightful and often emotionally-striking lyricism.
James Murphy had been a DJ and producer in New York for many years before - at this point well into his thirties - going on to create and front the band LCD Soundsystem. Murphy’s time on the DJing scene had given him a love and near-encyclopedic knowledge of music, particularly art-punk, disco, and electronic dance. His melting pot of influences led him to not only co-found production team The DFA and record label DFA Records with Mo’ Wax founder Tim Goldsworthy, but to put together LCD Soundsystem as a vehicle for his own songwriting.
LCD’s debut album came in two forms - one a standard 47-minute LP and the other a sprawling 100-minute double album with the second disc featuring older tracks like their now-classic debut single “Losing My Edge”, in which, backed by lo-fi electronic beats, Murphy nonchalantly speak-sings a monologue about the shallow posturing and name-dropping of much of the music scene. “I hear that everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.” Part of what made that track capture attention back then was its tongue-in-cheek self-awareness - it is clear that Murphy is not sparing himself from this mockery.
Tracks like this have led many over the years to dismiss LCD as the ultimate hipster band — the lyrics so self-referential and dripping in so many layers of irony that genuine meaning and emotion is hard to find. Defenders of the band’s debut album (and there are many - the album was loved by critics and fans alike) object to this characterisation, and although I do enjoy the album’s confident and inventive sound, I believe that its follow-up is a significant step up - marrying Murphy’s smart-ass lyricism with more emotional weight, particularly on tracks like “Someone Great”, which details the death of a friend, and the iconic “All My Friends”.
The band’s debut album introduced the world to LCD’s “dance-punk” fusion of DIY punk ethos with heavy electronic dance influence. Most of the tracks feature synth loops and drum machines, either instead of or alongside guitars and a traditional kit. While many of the techno, disco, and synth-pop inspired instrumentals evoke Suicide (name-dropped in “Losing My Edge”) more than Sex Pistols, Murphy’s vocal alternations between disaffected sneers and unrestrained yelps brought the chaos of the punk scene to these tracks. Most of the album sees Murphy employ slurred, nonchalant enunciation that is perhaps a little too comparable to that of Mark E. Smith’s performances with The Fall. However, LCD’s influences are worn as a badge of pride - their music exists proudly and unashamedly within a cultural context that is referred to frequently. Murphy’s appreciation for dance music’s remix culture (notably displayed by the band’s 2006 remix compilation Introns) is possibly the reason for this.
Although Murphy has always been the band’s mastermind, a collection of talented multi-instrumentalists - Nancy Whang, Pat Mahoney, Gavin Rayna Russom, Tyler Pope, Al Doyle, Matt Thornley, and Korey Richey - bring the songs to life on record and during live performance. LCD’s template - minimal, repetitive loops and beats that hypnotically build gradually into multi-layered soundscapes - was established firmly and confidently on their debut album.
2007’s Sound Of Silver saw the band build on this established sound while also branching out in more diverse directions. The title comes from the fact that Murphy covered the entire studio with silver fabric and tin foil in an attempt to make the album sound “silver”, in contrast to the “beige” he described their debut as sounding like. Opener “Get Innocuous”, with its steady house beat, repeating bass loop, and sparkling synth chords, certainly gleams like the shiniest of disco-pop, although Murphy’s baritone vocals and disaffected, abstract lyrics (“Home, home in the late night / And away, away in the half-light”) are more Ian Curtis than Donna Summer. I once saw a tweet that playfully dismissed LCD Soundsystem as “just The National for people who like MDMA”, and it’s hard to entirely deny the suitability of that description to the band’s combination of introspective middle-aged angst with dancefloor beats.
The city of New York features heavily on this record — both in the sounds (which draw from the disco and house influences of clubs like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage as much as the punk scene of CBGB’s) and lyrical content. The first single “North American Scum”, with its tight groove and irresistibly-infectious acid-house bass loop, delivers the city the backhanded compliment “New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent”. Tracks like this one, and the minimal-yet-funky “Time to Get Away” sound like refined, updated versions of tracks from the band’s debut album. “Time to Get Away”, “Watch the Tapes”, and the eight-minute “Us V Them” carry an undeniable Remain In Light-era Talking Heads vibe, all polyrhythms, angular, choppy guitar licks, and hypnotic vocal drones. Even when LCD are in traditional “rock band” mode, playing acoustic drums and bass guitar rather than 808s or 303s, they are playing what is unapologetically dance music - with an emphasis on rhythm, texture, and groove that is as physical as it is cerebral.
In addition to a bolder return of the established dance-punk sound, Sound of Silver features a wider spectrum of emotion than on the debut. “Someone Great” features tired, world-weary vocals over downbeat, droning sawtooth synth bass. The lyrics are rawer and sadder than anything heard from the band before:
“To tell the truth I saw it coming
The way you were breathing
But nothing can prepare you for it
The voice on the other end”
The fact that this genuinely touching song about the slow death of a close friend (rumored to be Murphy's former therapist, the renowned Dr. George Kamen, to whom the album is dedicated), backed by mournful synth tones, remains not only catchy but also danceable, is a testament to Murphy’s skills in composition and arrangement. The production on this track is particularly sublime (even in comparison to the stellar work of the rest of the album), with jittery drum loops, twinkling glockenspiels, and chirping synths painting an unusual yet cathartic mix of life-affirming beauty and morbid gloom that echoes the emotional confusion of the lyrics.
The diverse mix of influences on the album is most apparent in the transition from the title track — a psychedelic odyssey of pure acid house — to closer “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”. This transition takes us from the warehouse rave to the jazz club, swapping dry ice for cigarette smoke and trading electronic loops and 4/4 danceability for doleful piano chords, pleading vocals, and slow waltz-time rhythm. Lyrically, Murphy expands on his love-hate relationship with his home city that he previously referred to on “North American Scum”, detailing gentrification, (“They shuttered your stores when you opened the doors / To the cops who were bored once they’d run out of crime”) capitalist ennui and corruption (then-mayor, more recently Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg is baited with the line “your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king”).
As Murphy’s relentless discontent with the city progresses, the song begins to explode into an emotional crescendo of pounding drums, doom-laden strings, and distorted squeals of guitar before ending. Despite his complaints, Murphy admits that even though he feels like “a rat in a cage pulling minimum wage”, the city is “still the one pool where I’d happily drown”. The love letter-style of the lyrics, comparing the city to a seriously flawed partner, is a minor stroke of genius.
One of the band’s most iconic and recognisable contributions to popular culture - Sound of Silver’s centrepiece “All My Friends” - also happens to be one of their best. The full nearly-eight-minute runtime (the single version is shorter, with most of the intro cut) tells a series of snapshots of aging and nostalgia that are highly specific yet entirely universal in the emotions that they evoke. Calling to mind similar classic songs like Bowie’s “Heroes” and Pulp’s “Common People” (both also reduced in runtime for their single versions), “All My Friends” powers on relentlessly over an incessant, shuffling motorik beat as, one-by-one, layers (sparse guitar riffs, a bouncy bass loop, a piercing, yearning synth tone) are placed delicately and meticulously over the foundation of a Steve Reich-esque piano loop that remains present for the entire track yet allows itself to be gradually buried and obscured by each layer added.
The slow build of “All My Friends” means that each subtle change adds a distinct emotional progression from nonchalance to emotional desperation that perfectly mirrors the lyrics. Beginning as a story of aging friends reuniting in an attempt to recreate the hedonistic nights of their youth, it ends as an existential crisis and meditation on life, loss, friendship, and memory. The mundane practicalities are mapped out at the beginning (“That’s how it starts / We go back to your house / You check the charts / And start to figure it out”), before the inevitable drawbacks of loss of youth emerge (“If the sun comes up and we still don’t wanna stagger home / Then it’s the memory of our betters that are keeping us on our feet”). These characters aren’t the carefree kids they once were, and as regret creeps in (“You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / And the next five years trying to be with your friends again”) and the layers of sound and sense of urgency build, the sense of running out of time (“To tell the truth, this could be the last time”) becomes inescapable.
Time moves on, and meaningful relationships and connections are gradually lost in pursuit of the rat race, to Murphy’s too-late realisation and regret. By the track’s climax, his desperate, impassioned plea of “if I could see all my friends tonight” has demolished any sense of cultivated cool and replaced it with pure emotional catharsis. “All My Friends” is a rare jewel of a recording — managing to be both a heady rush of escapism and also perhaps the most existential dance track ever committed to record.
The following years would bring - among other things - another highly-lauded studio album (2010’s This is Happening), a huge farewell show at Madison Square Garden and accompanying live film and album, then a reunion in 2016 and fourth album American Dream (the creation of which was apparently urged by the late David Bowie). These years also saw the rise of EDM as an unstoppable force in the American mainstream, as well as increased inequality and social problems both in New York and in the wider world, factors which mean that Sound of Silver is unlikely to lose much cultural relevance any time soon.
Although enduring over a decade later, Sound of Silver is also a clear reflection of its time and place. It exemplifies the transition period between the last great cultural boom of the indie-rock scene and the rise of social media and streaming sites, and the beginning of the dissolution of social and genre boundaries between the punks and the disco kids (boundaries which have now all but disappeared due to streaming sites allowing any suburban kid to have a music taste as varied as that detailed in “Losing My Edge”). As much as Sound of Silver harked back to the past for influences, it clearly also had one foot planted firmly in the future.