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.
The caustic rant might be James Murphy's natural medium, and "Pow Pow" is his most epic volley of shit-talk to date. As it starts with existential musing over lightly tropical disco, the spoken word of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" comes to mind. Murphy isn't as arch as David Byrne and much more scattered, dropping a meditation on subjectivity in mid-thought to note the quality of restaurants in his neighborhood. His mind flips at random from dissing Michael Musto to using President Obama as a bludgeon against holier-than-thou Euros. No one's sounded this convincingly extemporaneous since early Pavement, maybe. Of course, beneath all that, the groove remains meticulous. This sort of off-the-cuff goofiness has always been a key part of LCD Soundsystem's appeal, and lead single "Drunk Girls" is a typical mix of the seriously silly and the deceptively deep. Again, there's a whiff of Bowie, with a gender specific call and response a la "Boys Keep Swinging." But it sounds like nothing so much as grad students trying to turn their minds off on Spring Break, but unable to stop dissecting the semiotics of the surrounding hedonism.
Murphy's original trick was to cast the scenester as star. In "Losing My Edge" he brought to the foreground a certain type of cultural appreciator, gadflies who know everything about everything and tinker on the margins of inspiration ("working on the organ sounds" maybe) without actually producing anything of their own. They're the sort who fantasizes about how great it'd be to get Daft Punk to play a house party, rather than how great it'd be to be Daft Punk. This Is Happening's great meta moment, "You Wanted a Hit," illustrates LCD's growth from presumed hipster novelty to treasured indie paragon. Antagonism between profit-minded corporate suits and sweet, noble artists has been an ever-present storyline in pop music. Given his critical clout and loyal audience (in addition to his cage-fighting prowess) it seems unlikely that anyone is actually giving Murphy that much shit about topping the charts, but it's exactly the kind of classic record clerk conversation you'd expect him to dive into now that he's the product being dissected over the counter. A willfully obtuse lead-in guarantees that this one won't be on the radio, but it's catchy and tough—though not as fierce as it'll sound live in six months, if you believe the lyrics.
Murphy has suggested that This Is Happening might be the last LCD Soundsystem record. With his exhaustive knowledge of rock history, leaving a slim, consistent catalog might hold a heightened allure. The band's breakout songs, "Someone's Great" and "All My Friends," opened their aesthetic up, providing genuine emotional resonance to a band previously defined by knowing distance. They weren't love songs, exactly, a legacy-hole plugged by the new wave highlight "I Can Change." In it, love is described as "a murderer," a "curse wrapped in a hearse," as "bad poetry," none of which stop Murphy from pleading for it, heart-on-sleeve. His voice is sweet, miles from the adenoidal Mark E. Smith tics of his first record. The breezy warmth extends to the album-closing "Home." Where Murphy used to mock from the sidelines, he now provides intimate, friendly advice to openly accept life's comforts. "Look around you, you're surrounded, it won't get any better," he says. Whether or not this is the LCD Soundsystem's swan song, it's hard to imagine how it could.