2022 Music Essays

The Enduring Legacy of LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem Essay - Band Legacy

This LCD Soundsystem essay covers the band’s discography and legacy. Check out more musical breakdowns in Vague Visages’ Music Essays section.

Brooklyn dance-punk outfit LCD Soundsystem is celebrating multiple anniversaries in 2022: 10 years since Shut Up and Play the Hits (their originally intended “farewell” concert documentary), five years since their comeback album American Dream, 15 years since their classic album Sound of Silver and 20 years as a band (which has meant that they have been touring this year). LCD Soundsystem’s enduring legacy has always perhaps been inevitable, not least because of the way that they make music about legacy, thematically and lyrically. From frontman James Murphy’s lyrics to the band’s sonic references to previous generations of music artists (from the B-52s to Can to David Bowie), LCD Soundsystem self-reflexively plays with the idea of legacy and second-guessing the cultural response to their music by internalizing the fact that they want to be remembered.

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Sonically, this comes to mind when comparing the prominent chord change and verse energy of Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” to the same chord change and comparable energy of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘”Drunk Girls” on the album This Is Happening (2010). Equally, the Bowie connection surfaces when hearing the sliding guitar sounds of a track like “All I Want” (also from This Is Happening) or “call the police” (American Dream), which are indebted to but never derivative of Bowie’s legendary “Heroes.” As Thomas Leatham of Far Out recently reminded music fans, “the first record that Murphy actually bought […] was David Bowie’s “Fame,'” and Bowie’s influence has never been far from the music Murphy and his band make.

Shades of “Fame” specifically can be heard in the early LCD Soundsystem B-side “Yr City’s a Sucker,” which was released with “Movement” ahead of their 2005 self-titled debut album. “Fame” can also be heard in “change yr mind” from American Dream. Murphy even came close to working on Bowie’s final album Blackstar (2016) after a friendship blossomed between the two in the last few years of the late musician’s life. Murphy went as far as spending time with Bowie’s team in the studio and contributed percussion to two songs on the album, but a more major collaboration fell through after Murphy felt that what he had to offer did not fit the project, not wanting to get things wrong for an artist he transparently idolizes so much.

Lyrically, a self-conscious discussion of legacy is most central to LCD Soundsystem’s project in their debut single “Losing My Edge” (released in 2002): an almost eight-minute mock breakdown about staying cool as the culture shifts and music tastes evolve. “Losing My Edge” is driven by the ironic, desperate claim that “I was there” (as Murphy speak-sings) and includes a lengthy list of the musician’s record collection (or that of his persona), prompted by the lyric “But have you seen my records?” and lasting a good minute of the song’s runtime. The track can be considered as a microcosm of LCD Soundsystem’s general approach, which is to simultaneously acknowledge musical interests/influences and openly communicate a desire to have its own legacy, to itself be canonized and be remembered as important.

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LCD Soundsystem Essay - Band Legacy

In a year of multiple landmarks and anniversaries for LCD Soundsystem, revisiting their debut single generates an interesting conversation about legacy, as both an internal subject of the music and an external reality for the band. Murphy’s desire to share a legacy was projected in 2002, but has become an experienced reality by 2022. The announcement for the 20th anniversary shows in London earlier this summer, which is where LCD Soundsystem played their first ever show, saw enigmatic projections appear around London, subverting the “I was there” mantra from “Losing My Edge” and turning it into “You are here” (which is also likely a reference to the opening line of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest).

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LCD Soundsystem’s statement that came with the announcement referred to “everything we’ve all collectively been through” and called this “a plausible excuse to throw a party.” The band’s frequent appearances on “best of the century” album lists — including The Guardian putting Sound of Silver fifth in their top 100 in 2019 — would suggest that what they have been through is a lot of success, which has all but guaranteed a legacy. “Losing My Edge” wears the projected desires of its then 30-something frontman on its sleeve, and these manifest in the song’s narrative as an anxiety about merely doing something to be proud of, which offers a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and not even necessarily doing something that would lead to a legacy, at least not yet.

Murphy was advised against releasing “Losing My Edge,” let alone releasing it as the A-side: a last-minute U-turn after “Beat Connection” swapped places with it and became the B-side. They were little to know that the song would launch a tremendously successful career for LCD Soundsystem as a touring band, and that they would still play it during setlists for a 20th anniversary tour, with Murphy musing about losing his edge to “The kids” who “are coming up from behind” and “whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks.” In the song, Murphy plays a character that is not dissimilar from himself, at least when factoring in interview statements since the release.

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LCD Soundsystem Essay - Band Legacy

Central to the narrative of “Losing My Edge,” echoing things Murphy has said over the years, is the desperation to do something significant in life, rather than simply being replaced by the next generation after your moment of opportunity has passed. The sentiment recalls the aforementioned novel Infinite Jest, which Murphy has famously said “really floored — really depressed — me” and whose iconic Abacus book cover was alluded to with LCD Soundsystem’s album sleeve design for American Dream. Murphy said that the publication of Infinite Jest “depressed” him because it was such a monumental achievement, because it made him realize how little he had achieved by the same age as Wallace (at the same time).

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The protagonist of Infinite Jest, Hal Incandenza, is crippled by the suicide of his father, who as the reader learns in a flashback was himself driven by his father’s influence and the direction his life took. On page 168 of Wallace’s novel, in one of its finest passages, young James Orin Incandenza listens as his father tells him that “I’m just afraid of having a tombstone that says HERE LIES A PROMISING OLD MAN.” “Losing My Edge” centralizes the same fear of having ambitions that must confront the obstacle of self-projected failure. In the same interview about the influence of Wallace, Murphy says that “This really dense conflict that I can’t resolve — that’s where ‘Losing My Edge’ came from.”

The list of references in the four-album catalogue of varied, excellent music that LCD Soundsystem have released thus far could go on for some time — references to other music such as Bowie’s but also to the literature most valued by Murphy, as seen in just a brief look at Infinite Jest. As Murphy puts it in Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012), which was directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, this playful approach to artistic legacy through allusions dates back to debut single “Losing My Edge.” As Murphy says in the documentary, “I was 38 years old and I said ‘I’m gonna make a record.’” Murphy did this, fusing influence with originality; this record set the tone for a career lasting 20 years and counting. True to his lyric in this song, others were there for the ambitious beginnings to Murphy’s musical career, there to support him but with doubt that his big ambitions would lead to making music that mattered, as was his desire. Not all fans were there for the formative stages of Murphy’s career, but it is a testament to LCD Soundsystem’s music that so many of us have been picked up along the way.

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George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a PhD candidate/graduate teaching assistant at King’s College London, a short fiction writer and a freelance culture writer. He is also an assistant editor at Coastal Shelf. George’s recent and forthcoming publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press and Offscreen. In 2020, he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.