James Murphy's skill in the studio is unimpeachable. No one's drums sound crisper, no one's synths hit such clear, distinct wavelengths. He's most commonly applied his craft toward danceable builds that slowly percolate until they reach a grand catharsis. This Is Happening's opener, "Dance Yrself Clean," subverts that dynamic to grand effect. It starts with a quiet nonchalance, Murphy murmuring about navigating social encounters over gentle, hand-slapped percussion and key tones deep enough to sell the rope-a-dope. Three minutes in, and all of a sudden, the track erupts into kinetic club rhythm, less a payoff than a total blindside. Even on repeat listens without the element of surprise, it's a sublime "Whoa!" moment of pop. Lyrically, Murphy exercises the same sort of control, and has become particularly adept at altering repeating lines ever-so-slightly for maximum impact. Early in "One Touch," a sweaty fret over hype and expectations, he drops the awesomely misanthropic mantra, "People who need people to the back of the bus," and then spends the rest of the song subtly avoiding a direct repetition. When it finally returns at a climatic moment, the precise rhythm of that exact wording is killer.
While press check-ins to his L.A. studio found Murphy proclaiming to be making a "California record," his heart was clearly in Berlin. The most frequent knock on James Murphy as a songwriter is that he's just a talented mimic with the world's greatest record collection—easy to say when the song's homages are more commonly neon-lit than cleverly camouflaged. "All I Want" successfully approximates the gradually charging upswell of Bowie's "Heroes" and adds the blazing guitar tone of Brian Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets." (And if you missed the cover-art allusion to Bowie's Lodger, look again.) Those artists are forever entwined by their collaborations, and the song aims to conflate their subtly differing aesthetics, as if two consecutive songs in a DJ set list could fully meld rather than just mash-up. Later, "Someone's Calling Me" borrows its piano vamp from Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing," stripping another leaf off this late-70s, drugged-in-Deutschland branch of art-rock. While "All I Want" is quite good, and "Someone Calling Me" certainly isn't bad, the most overt nods set up Murphy to fail by comparison. He's much more low-key than the desperate, romantic Bowie, far less debauched than Iggy's creature of the night. Grounding these larger-than-life icons with more modest humanity might be the point, though.