The Music Beat’s coverage of our albums of the year continues, with two New York indie releases that grapple with solitude and the self in very different milieus — the post-punk synth breakdowns of LCD Soundsystem’s “american dream” and the pristine folk of Julie Byrne’s “Not Even Happiness.”
LCD Soundsystem, “american dream” — Nick Burns, Staff Writer
Arcade Fire may be missing James Murphy’s hand at the wheel, but we’re glad he’s back under his own moniker. After breaking up his band LCD Soundsystem in 2011 and co-producing Arcade Fire’s ambitious and highly successful 2013 album “Reflektor,” he reunited the band this year and promptly scored another hit with the critics, while Arcade Fire’s follow-up album (“Everything Now”) was widely panned.
“american dream” is simultaneously a surprisingly smooth return to form, and a bit of a oddity in the band’s catalog. In the latter category: the ambitious title at odds with the familiar and more modest scope of an LCD Soundsystem album, the lack of capitalization (did Kendrick Lamar use up all the capital letters this year?), the uninspired album cover, which looks more like a new-age self-help book cover than anything else. But these are surface things. In the former category: the opening track, a sparse, synth-driven breakup song entitled “oh baby.” This song says, LCD Soundsystem are back! It’s a song in the classic LCD mode of songs that leave you unsure whether you want to moodily dance or mope ecstatically. Somewhere between dance hits and synth-rock brooding tunes, not unlike Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece “Remain in Light,” which, sure enough, receives due acknowledgment on the jerky, paranoid track “other voices.”
Throughout the album, Murphy keeps a fine balance between armchair-intellectualism, cultural commentary, and Car Seat Headrest–esque social angst. He references Hegel on “tonite” (“You know very well the dialectic of negation”), and Marx on the title track (“Oh, the revolution was here / That would set you free from those bourgeoisie”) before interrogating the song’s aging protagonist as he wakes up from another drugged-up one-night stand (“You just suck at self-preservation / Versus someone else’s pain”).
Other tracks likewise shine. “how do you sleep?” is a classic LCD Soundsystem nine-minute slow-burner, à la “Dance Yrself Clean,” while “call the police” hums along, undergirded by a great bass riff. The album closes with the pulsing, atmospheric “black screen,” a tribute to David Bowie, narrated by a sheepish Murphy who wishes he’d been more energetic in communicating with the magisterial Brit during his life. “You couldn’t make our wedding day / Too sick to travel,” the song opens. “I owe you dinner, man.”
This is Murphy’s band picking up where they left off: mechanical, compelling synths; long songs always worth listening to all the way through; lyrics with a rich balance of the contrite or quotidian and the existential. He’s never quite too self-aware, though he toes that line very capably. The songs move smoothly from something just short of synth-rock sing-along to the dark and ambient. It’s a piece of work that remains for me, not traditionally more than a halfhearted LCD Soundsystem fan, one of this year’s most rewarding albums to listen to all the way through.
Julie Byrne, “Not Even Happiness” — Tyler Dunston, Contributing Writer
Julie Byrne is a kind of nature poet, which may seem ironic given the fact that she’s based in New York City. After all, on the opening track from her beautiful sophomore LP “Not Even Happiness,” Byrne sings over softly plucked guitar, “To me this city’s hell / But I know you call it home / I was made for the green / Made to be alone.”
In many ways, Byrne’s music is concerned with finding peace amid the chaos, quiet amid the noise. The summer before her album was released, Byrne worked in Central Park as a Seasonal Ranger. As Byrne stated in an interview with Stereogum, she “came to view it as a sanctuary, not only for New Yorkers to experience their connection to nature but also for the wildlife that take refuge there.” This experience informed her most recent record “Not Even Happiness.”
“Not Even Happiness” follows Byrne’s debut, the ambient, beautiful and strange “Rooms With Walls and Windows” — one of 2014’s most critically overlooked albums — which demonstrated the simple but powerful mixture of ethereal vocals, minimal but evocative guitar, and poetry (songs like “Wisdom Teeth Song” and “Attached to Us Like Butcher Wrap” being prime examples) that folk music can offer. “Not Even Happiness” continues in this vein, but it is shorter, more polished in terms of production, and incorporates string and flute arrangements to accompany Byrne’s skilled fingerpicking and haunting vocals. “Not Even Happiness” is a more thematically focused album as well, documenting the search for transcendence and the relation between the self and the outside world.
“Not Even Happiness” depicts many moments of transcendence found in sanctuary, evoking Byrne’s Central Park sentiments. Some of these moments are found in love for another person (on “Follow My Voice,” for example), but much of the album’s resonance comes from the speaker’s finding moments of peace in isolation, in solitary communion with the natural world.
The song “All the Land Glimmered” exemplifies this theme and solidifies Byrne’s status as a nature poet par excellence. Byrne asks, “Will I know a truer time / Than when I stood alone in the snow / And the moon was in the sky and it shone / And all the land glimmered beneath,” drawing meaning from the kind of solitude that allows for a direct connection to the natural world. The narrator is looking back, yearning for the kind of sanctuary and capacity for wonder that solitude provides.
One of the central concepts on this record is expressed in the last line of the song: “I’ve been seeking god within.” True transcendence, for the speaker, is found not in some outside force, but within oneself. With that in mind, I highly recommend taking a moment of solitude and listening to this record.
Contact Nick Burns at nburns ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tyler Dunston at tdunston ‘at’ stanford.edu.