The unheralded problem with the 33 1/3 series of books is that one of them will probably piss you off. The series is predicated upon smart, music-loving people writing a book about music they love. It’s ingenious in its appeal to capture the hearts and minds of music wonks, but it’s fraught with the specific tension common to writing words to discuss any art form. What happens when you read something about a work of art you love that you simply don’t agree with?
I’m not talking about fans of a band reacting to a negative review.
Rather, I’m talking about what happens when someone doesn’t appreciate an artist exactly like you do.
Your memories, feelings, and impressions about art are subjectively yours, yet they reach the level of objective truth in your subconscious. And you’ll be damned if someone has different opinions than you do!
I fought these sensations while reading LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver by Ryan Leas, the 33 1/3 series’ newest release. It’s obvious the author holds James Murphy and his art in the highest of esteem, as he frequently waxes rhapsodic about the important place LCD Soundsystem holds in the pantheon of 21st century music.
But he did so in a way that I found both frustrating and distracting: by using the band’s 2011 retirement, 2016 reunion, and the non-album track “Losing My Edge” as the principal lenses through which he discussed their Sound of Silver’s impact.
In to the book’s outro, the author copped to the book arising from “weird circumstances,” and the table of contents notes parts of the final chapter arose from two articles the author wrote for Stereogum (one in 2013 and the other in 2016). Since the band came out of retirement for a host of reunion shows at large festivals (specifically at Coachella in March 2016), my initial impression was the book was rushed to approval and completion. But basing my negative impression of the book upon the circumstances of its publication washes over the larger compositional issues at hand, specifically its scattershot focal points.
Let’s drop the gloves for a second. LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver is one of my five favorite records of the 21st century, and I don’t think Leas did it justice.
In the real world, I’m sure Leas and I would happily geek out together over our mutual affection for the musicianship of Murphy and his ragtag band of compatriots. But as a book talking about those feelings, it kinda failed.
It all started with Leas’ chronicle of his attendance at LCD’s final show in Madison Square Garden in 2011, the one captured in the film Shut Up and Play the Hits. He frequently employed the “I was there…” motif from the band’s 2002 debut single “Losing My Edge” throughout the chapter. The tune was an eight-minute chronicle of an aging scenester trying to prove he’s too cool for you while also admitting he’s way too old for this shit any more – it served as a pretty good opening salvo and mission statement for the band.
The problem? Leas used it over and over again throughout the rest of the book.
And it wouldn’t be too big of a problem if all he did was confine its use to discussions of how Murphy approached the ideas and ideals of that song from multiple vantage points over the course of his career. Instead, Leas wielded it like a bludgeon to mention his presence at the 2011 retirement show, 2016 reunion show, and other points in between.
He also overuses “Losing My Edge” as a guiding metaphor when dissecting the nine songs of Sound of Silver, especially Murphy’s ruminations on aging, maturity, getting old, growing up, and all the other heady themes that deserve consideration when talking about this record. What’s frustrating about this vantage point is the author ties the song to why Murphy retired in 2011 and then came back in 2016, veritably leapfrogging the album supposedly under examination.
However, Sound of Silver is rarely taken at face value or put into context.
Instead, uses it as a tool to decode why Murphy left and returned five years later. The gorgeous triptych of “Someone Great,” “All My Friends,” and “Us V Them” is regarded as a mere Rosetta Stone for interpreting Murphy’s decision to play some reunion shows and release some new music five years after a well-regarded retirement tour.
In fact, that’s my biggest quibble with the whole book. Because Leas focuses so much on the retirement and reunion, he’s created a book that’s super-immediate and of-the-moment. But by making the book about current events, it won’t matter as a work of criticism in the long term.
In another five years, people won’t care about why Murphy came back in 2016 for a few reunion shows. They’ll want to read a book about Sound of Silver and why it’s one of the best records of the century. Instead, they only have a book about a dude going to some concerts and interpreting an artist’s career decisions through lyrics about being an old musician.
The book really shines when Leas positions Murphy’s art and legacy against all the other, early 2000’s New York City revivalist acts.
Whereas The Strokes, Interpol, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs opined the loss of the gritty “old” New York City with music calling back to punk, post-punk, and New Wave sounds of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Murphy instead dragged those sounds (as well as those of glam, disco, and electro) into the current millennium. There’s a reason people continue to laud LCD Soundsystem as a band that made fresh and interesting music, while those other New York bands seem stuck in their place and time.
I don’t like that I don’t not like this book.
I’d love to chat face to face with Leas over several drinks about Murphy’s impact in breaking down genre walls between indie and pop music. I’m super-jealous that he attended the farewell AND reunion shows, whereas I’ve only seen LCD Soundsystem once. The author is warm, fannish, approachable, and authentic in how he talks about a band he really loves.
Still, the book ultimately feels like seven blog posts about the historical importance of LCD Soundsystem in the indie music pantheon and less about Sound of Silver on its own merits.
The discussions about the lyrical themes of this record are without enough of a central idea or core tenet beyond “I like James Murphy a lot, so I’m going to tell you why.” I’d like to talk to you about how much I like James Murphy, too, but that doesn’t always make for a good book. Especially when you’re supposed to be talking about a specific record.
RATING: If you like LCD Soundsystem, you’ll probably want to read this book just because you’re that sort of fan. But if you’re not a fan or you just wanted to learn more about this record and why people liked it, you’ll probably come away frustrated.