My friend was working behind the counter of a used- record shop on a recent Saturday afternoon when a teenager approached clutching a copy of “Sports,” the 1983 bestseller by Huey Lewis and the News. Even in 2017, I still believe that record stores are the best places to test our pet hypotheses on complete strangers, and so does my friend, so he launched into a little spiel about how “Sports” became culturally immense in a way that no longer seems possible: Lewis had made an old style of music feel timely by owning up to his age and his uncoolness. Then the teenager says, “Isn’t that what LCD Soundsystem is?” Had I been the guy working that cash register, the kid could have robbed the place immediately after I fainted from the perfection of his observation.
James Murphy is our Huey Lewis. Not our Brian Eno, or our David Byrne, or our Jonathan Richman, or anyone else that Murphy name-dropped in LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” way back in 2002. He’s Huey Lewis. Why did it take so long to see it?
Both men found fame after the age of 30, singing about getting older and feeling obsolete. Both men are studio smoothies with golden ears and healthy egos. Both are very good at making fun of themselves in song (even though they might actually be making fun of you). And both love rock-and-roll but ultimately want you to dance.
And speaking of “you,” check out their core constituencies: Lewis was embraced by ’80s “yuppies” the same way that Murphy remains beloved by aughties “hipsters.” Obviously, both men hate being boxed in like that — feeling limited by someone else’s idea of who your audience is is no fun — even though their respective musics do a very specific thing. James Murphy is our Huey Lewis.
Or maybe Huey Lewis was the original James Murphy. Either way is fine. The cosmic justice of their resemblance flows in both directions — Murphy is probably overrated to the same degree that Lewis is underrated. But highlighting their glaring similarities isn’t about recalibrating our tastes; it’s about understanding one guy in hopes of better understanding the other. Murphy and Lewis both made expertly crafted, excessively self-conscious pop songs designed to keep people dancing as they reluctantly forfeited their youth. The music was clever, but the anxiety was real.
For Murphy, it still is. With LCD Soundsystem’s fourth album, “American Dream,” the 47-year-old songwriter-frontman-producer has reunited his loudly bereaved rock band after a grandiose farewell gig at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Staging a comeback this early feels ridiculous, but in an interview with the New York Times, Murphy said that David Bowie essentially gave him permission to reassemble the band. So that explains that.
What remains inexplicable is Murphy’s burning desire to come back and tell us more of the same story in more of the same tones. “American Dream” sounds like the LCD Soundsystem we’ve always known — exquisite analog synth arpeggios, impeccable snare fills, butt-bouncing bass, ornery lyrics that radiate a stylish aura of paranoia.
It’s a vibe that Murphy blueprinted with “Losing My Edge,” a narrated dance track about getting trounced in the style wars by a new class of “art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s.” Since then, Murphy has continued to write songs that allow him to attack himself and his surroundings in sweepingly efficient gestures — a strategy that he reveals throughout Lizzy Goodman’s terrific new book, “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” a 600-page oral history of rock-and-roll in New York after 9/11. In the tome’s final pages, Murphy confirms that his creative impulse is fundamentally combative. “I’m an underdog by nature and I like to be fighting,” he says. “I don’t make music for myself. I make music to fight.”
This new LCD album picks only familiar fights. “Other Voices” is a Talking Heads pantomime about the nagging urge to get your famous band back together, and its refrain finds Murphy singing to the mirror, “You’re still a pushover for passionate people.” The song’s implied conclusion speaks to his abiding confidence: His music is a rebuke to all the other lousy styles fouling up the scene. In a similar spirit, there’s “Tonite,” in which, over a squirmy acid house riff, the singer laments that “all the hits are saying the same thing.” Both songs sound good, but they feel unfair. What right does Murphy have to complain about the state of contemporary pop when his disco-punk Jamba Juice tastes like the past 30 years never happened?
The only conspicuous shift on “American Dream” is that the vocal melodies now obey the contours of Bono, for better and for worse, depending on how much lung Murphy chooses to deploy. But his lyric sheet? It feels more neo-Huey than ever, repeatedly echoing the anti-cool of “Hip to Be Square,” a career-defining hit for Huey Lewis and the News from 1986.
Maybe you remember the song’s first three lines: “I used to be a renegade, I used to fool around /But I couldn’t take the punishment and had to settle down /Now I’m playing it real straight, and yes, I cut my hair.”
Jump ahead three decades to the tweaky Eno groove of LCD’s “Change Yr Mind” and listen to Murphy sing: “I’m not dangerous now, the way I used to be once /I’m just too old for it now.” Later in the track list, there’s an entire song dedicated to coif anxiety — the fittingly serrated “Emotional Haircut” — during which Murphy blames his hairstyle for his reticence to “step outside.” And just as “Hip to Be Square” concludes with a boisterous, high-testosterone singalong, Murphy leads similar group-shouts on both LCD tunes.
Across the decades, these all-together-now refrains seem to be communicating the same thing: Hey, everybody, maybe my private neuroses are a little like yours.
In that sense, it’s easy to hear the entirety of Murphy’s songbook running parallel to “Sports,” a seven-times-platinum album that glossed the gaps between rock and R&B the same way Murphy has done with punk and disco. “I Want a New Drug” is about wanting to feel young inside a body that isn’t. “The Heart of Rock & Roll” is an ode to music’s durability. Those are Murphy themes all the way — and even when they seem small, or superficial, or petty, they’re always pointing toward bigger things.
Or really, the biggest thing. Continuously losing your cool is a reminder that you’re continuously losing your life, and nobody wants to die, not Huey Lewis, not James Murphy, not you and not me.