"You wanted a hit/but we don't really do hits", LCD mainman James Murphy scoffingly taunts on "You Wanted A Hit". Well, yes and no. Ever since he first began to make a name for himself about five or six years ago, this soundman-turned-producer-turned-indie star has been the guy decrying the taste of cake while it oozes from between the teeth of his shit-eating grin. Because lengthy and caustic as they may be, tunes like "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House", "All My Friends" and "Losing My Edge" are hits, and Murphy knows it. Even more than this, he's the kind of hitmaker whose main source of inspiration is a smart but obvious rescrambling of a series of past successful templates. New Order, The Velvets, Eno, Bowie, Cage, Reich, The Slits—he's the hip joint of a hipster, a vital intersection with tastes so unerringly tasteful, it's very easy to be a cynic.
What's saved Murphy from going up in his own flames has been an eagerness to expose himself to his own withering and often humourous cultural critique—and to paraphrase his own "North American Scum": the more he did it, the better it got. What started as a dumpy, middle-aged scenester squeezing his tummy in front of the mirror ("Losing My Edge") became a very poignant self-examination of how to age—relevantly, if not gracefully—alongside a club scene that is built for the young. When this approach climaxed on the one-two punch of "Someone Great" and "All My Friends" from 2007's Sound Of Silver, he'd become the John C. Reilly of rock stars (er, well, I guess that was Dewey Cox, but roll with me on this one)—funny, inexhaustibly observant and wry, and yet full of a boatload of tragic humanity. He was an outsider to the very scene he was creating.
That's an exceedingly tough balance to maintain, and no doubt many are gunning for This Is Happening to be the sound of Murphy finally choking on his own bitter bakery. But he's a slippery character and on this newest album, he manages to make some of his deftest escapes yet. Lead single "Drunk Girls" would be that gagging death-blow if it weren't so hilariously dead-on. "Pow Pow" (which finds the guy from "Losing My Edge" full of bleary-eyed rebuttals the next morning at the coffee shop) has a tackle box worth of putdowns that are simply far more fun to go along with than critique. But above all, Murphy knows he has to start strong, and does he ever on Happening. Opener "Dance Yrself Clean" is as good a defense of the LCD brand as any could muster, gently lulling you with a series of off-hand wanderings before walking face-first into a telephone pole of a synth breakdown that turns into a completely irresistible five-minute party. It's flat out awesome and like several other tracks here (especially the soaring guitar love affair of "All I Want"), you bet it's a hit. Because, as great a character as Murphy has been able to construct out of his own midlife missteps, it's ultimately his dance steps that we're most interested in. Don't worry, kids—daddy's got this one covered.