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Tuesday, December 14, 2004
"These are the parts of our terrible past. These are the things we can live without."

Joe has a post on LCD Soundsystem's "Movement" which has, besides making me focus more on the song, triggered certain thoughts and related tangents. I'll present some here.

Thought 1: based partially on that Guardian article, the narrative arc of Murphy's compositions seems less about the progress from cynicism to idealism, as Joe thinks, and more related to the Friedbergian concept of music-as-failure [tangent 1] --the word "failure" even appears in the Guardian's headline! LCD Soundsystem's songs tend to start with a sense of righteousness but inevitably reach a point of realization that the sentiment itself deserves scorn, and from this realization (synthesis, you might say if you wanted to be pretentious [tangent 2]) comes a release, not a movement, and that's where those ecstatic finales stem from. In other words, the explosion comes not from idealism, but from overcoming idealism, from realizing that the particular idealism available to you [tangent 3] contradicts everything you want to do, everything you find pleasure in. The release on "Yeah" falls into no category aside from maybe trance [tangent 4] which, as we know, is not exactly held in the highest idealistic regard by, well, anyone. And I think this short-circuiting, this disconnect, is built into the composition, whether as it goes along or in retrospect (editing being a key componant of LCD Soundsystem's compositional technique), specifically as an acknowledgement and expression of failure, of the way any pursuit of musical idealism is destined to fail. They are, to be pretentious yet again, Shinto songs, not only in the pop sense of being deliberately short-term and disposable--more concerned ultimately with providing the most effective present-tense thrill than in creating something durable and ageless--but also intended to decay as they go along, to break down [tangent 5] in real time. To produce, in other words, ecstacy via erosion, via subtraction, the aging process sped up 100 times. There is no morality in music; its removal results in freedom.

[tangent 1] Strongly in evidence on the guitar outro on "Blancheflower," which I think I'm starting to understand. It's just a horrible, horrible solo, not pleasurable to listen to on any level, and something that no one in the world would have allowed to remain if they had any say in the matter. Which they don't, of course, but the valuative point remains. And it goes on for a minute and a half! There are bits that are sort of OK, but overall it sounds exactly like someone whanging along at random, both melodically and rhythmically--just a lot of vaguely chordal runs and fast picking without any particular reason or rhyme. Structurally, the best contemporaneous comparion would be the long outro to Wilco's "At Least That's What You Said" (still the only Wilco song I'll listen to and holding strong!), except there the solo is well-structured, thrilling, and over an independently compelling chord progression. For "Blancheflower," the backing is listless and plodding, and while the little speed-up noise breaks are sorta fun, but as I suggested in my write-up, they're also pretty clearly there to cover up the lack of drumming skills. In other words, there's no aesthetic justification for this section.

But there is a theoretical one, which is actually delicious and richly rewarding, and it's precisely these sort of meta-arrangements, if you will--choices made for purely thematic reasons, that actually undermine the aesthetic impact--that I think offer the appeal that might make you able to overcome and even embrace Blueberry Boat's flaws. There is work required to fully enjoy this album, but it's a more poppy varient on the modernist concept of difficulty, one that certain writers I Do Find Wonderful embrace as well, which offers you an embarassment of hooks, of little nuggets of pleasure, while witholding enough (which mainly fall in the category of expected pleasures) to illuminate the path to a more rewarding understanding of the whole. Embracing the concept of failure, in other words--accepting that you're going to fail at your stated mission outright and admitting this--allows you to choose where you fail, and use this failures as successes, sort of. If you're going to do a just OK guitar solo, why not do a horrible one instead? Why not really fail? "Blancheflower" is ample example of all this, if you want, from the out-of-beat randomized oscillator and the wholly beatless vocals in the first section to the tripping-over-itself duet near the end. Whereas the storybook, past-tense sections are smooth, well-structured, and sensical, the closer the song gets to the present, the more chaotic it gets, the more the decay sets in. This seems not a comment on modern life so much as a reflection of the failure stylee.

[tangent 2] Synthesis! I mean it here in the Hegelian sense, of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which I've always found a bit bullshit quite frankly--this has been you clap clap blog snap dismissal of a really compicated concept of the day!--but a) this is a pop song, and b) what do you expect from the 19th century? Heathens. So, yes, not only in that nerdy sense, but also in the equally nerdy sense of synthesized sounds, which I feel like originated with an intellectual European as well, but honestly I'm too lazy to check and it's handy for my purposes so let's say it is. Taking, say, a Moog bass patch as your synthesis, the thesis might be the oscilator and the antithesis might be the envelope and high-pass filter, and then, bing bam boom, you've got a phat bassline dawg. I like the idea of a noise as the result of an argument, or even, hey, a rational discussion. It's something your keyboard discusses with itself and then comes to a conclusion in the form of a waveform.

And but so anyway, these are gifts to us from these wacky europeans that we've synthesized in our own ways to produce things like the Fiery Furnaces and LCD Soundsystem. Electronic music has obviously undergone a very odd transformation over the course of its history, but the influence of various only-vaguely-past-tense European musicians on the sounds on offer here is clear, as well as (arguably) the influence of a particularly European kind of modernist and adventure writing on the Furnaces' album. You could also make the argument that particularly European manifestos are a big influence on Murphy's lyrics. And so here we have Europe as the kind of antithesis to American culture (going back to Joe's original post), a sort of giant subculture or source of resistence where artists can find another nodal point of view to set against what they're used to in order to ease creation through the ol' cultural uterus. And it works both ways, too--Europe often uses American culture as an antithesis, in both the Hegelian and conventional sens eof the word--but what I'm interested in here is this idea that these opposition ideas Joe see in LCD Soundsystem songs come not from within, but from an outside source, as Murphy more or less acknowledges in "Losing My Edge." The disillusionment with culture is tempered by a sense of its possibilities partially sourced by an assessment of your own possibilities, but also with a view toward what others can do with the same source materials. The music, in other words, is a constant; the variations you put on it, the attack time or oscillator speed or amount of high-pass cut and res, is what's at issue.

[tangent 3] Caveat should be highlighted as an admission of the ways Joe and I agree here. The problem is not so much idealism qua idealism as it is the particular idealisms readily available to or pre-installed in an "indie studio rat." Part of what makes LCD Soundsystem so great is that it doesn't come from an original e'd-up gangsta; Murphy came to this particular idealism in a late stage, when it was dilluted and wholly discredited, and so to revitalize it he had to combine it with elements of his existing ideology. There seems to be in no way an abandoment of indie ideals here, just a shift, a modification. Idealism here can productively serve as thesis or antithesis (incidentally, I'll stop using these terms after this post is over) but never as synthesis. What results is not an idealized state but an ecstatic non-utopianism. In the present context, I don't think it would work if it were otherwise; there's simply no way we can believe that rave morality is a productive tool in today's world. You can make an ideology out of LCD Soundsystem--indeed, I myself kinda did--but it itself does not express an ideology.

[tangent 4] Due, in my humble opinion, for a massive reevaluation, but that's for another time and place. I haven't finished analyzing a friggin' indie-rock opera yet; am I really about to embark on tracing and rehabilitating European dance-pop from the early-90s chart rave alternatives ("happy rave" etc.) through to the global trance sound that's so universally loathed by anyone with taste? Considering I would be embarking on a Marcusian making-up-my-own-story-and-totally-ignoring-the-actual-history task, no I am not. But maybe later.

[tangent 5] See tangent 2, except instead of Hegel think poets of decay and instead of emusic think James Brown.