LCD Soundsytem in Chicago, 2017. Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CCO 2.0.
This week, the Review is publishing a series of short reflections on love songs, broadly defined.
Out of nowhere, like an ambulance approaching from a great distance or a bedside alarm boring a hole through your sleep, a sound fades in, so subtle and liquid that at first you might mistake it for your own thought—a mid-tempo drone. The first time I heard it, at a sweaty dance party in a cramped room at the tail end of college, I wondered for a moment if this sound would last the entire song. Then the drum kicks in, heavy on the backbeat, a steady thump paired with an agitated tapping that skitters ahead of and behind itself, as if that initial sound were an object of worship to be chased but not quite approached. That sound, gathering momentum, amounts to a test—how far can a collection of tones speed up, fall back, pitch rising and falling, and still remain whole and anchored to their original pulse? How far can a series of relations be stretched before they break? When James Murphy’s baritone finally enters, glockenspiel chimes cling to his every syllable: “I wish that we could talk about it / But there, that’s the problem.”
“Someone Great” sounds very much like an elegy for a lost relationship, and in a sense that’s what it is. But it might be more accurate to say it’s an elegy for a way of relating. The album it appears on, Sound of Silver, is dedicated to the memory of Dr. George Kamen—Murphy’s longtime therapist, and an innovative practitioner of group therapy. Kamen died in 2006, the year before the album’s release. Narrating the feeling of a dreaded, ill-timed phone call, Murphy sings, “To tell the truth I saw it coming / The way you were breathing / But nothing can prepare you for it / The voice on the other end.” The way the synth works, slinky and mournful, you could be forgiven for thinking of it as a love song.
While some dance music hits you with everything at once, some opens with a drip, doling itself out element by element, teaching you how the different parts of the beat work together. LCD Soundsystem nearly perfected the latter approach, and in so doing taught a generation of kids who had grown up blasting Nirvana alone through their headphones how to move together in a dark room. It was a gift—group therapy—that many of us didn’t know we needed. In the concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits, at what was supposed to be the band’s final show at Madison Square Garden in 2011 (they would reunite in 2016), Murphy turns from the ecstatic capacity crowd at the end of “Someone Great” and approaches bandmate Nancy Whang as he wipes his face with a black handkerchief. She regards him with a warm, quizzical smile. It’s difficult to tell if he’s wiping away tears or sweat. Then they laugh, and he turns back to the audience.
I wished that we could talk about it, but there, that’s the problem. Having fled New York mid-March 2020, half because of the pandemic and half because I was reeling from the dissolution of a nearly decade-long relationship, I returned in July to pack up my stuff from the apartment we’d shared, just in time for a brutal heat wave. During the day I chugged ice water and sweated, truly alone for the first time in years, and in the evenings I walked to the park with my headphones, where I would wait until the sun went down to start weeping, so that I could do it surrounded by other people. Like dancing, crying felt less humiliating in the dark, and doing it around other people somehow made it feel more purposeful. After a period of protracted isolation, people were coming back to one another in public parks. Being there was helpfully incommensurate with my free- falling sense of loneliness and grief for “the voice on the other end,” a sense that the only good part of myself—my better half, as it were—had been extracted; if I sat there on the lawn for long enough, maybe I’d hear it coming back.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the lyrics of “Someone Great” until then: “There’s all the work that needs to be done / It’s late for revision / There’s all the time and all the planning / And songs to be finished.” It was true. There were people to see and poems to write. It was now necessary to revise my sense of self—and yet, sobbing so hard that I saw stars, I wondered about the lateness of the revision. I was thirty-five, about the same age Murphy was when he wrote the song. Of course I knew that finding love again was still possible, likely even, but I also had the thought that after a certain point perhaps time cauterizes rather than heals us.
I have fallen in and out of love since then, and I’ve also been out dancing. A little chime approaches—maybe from within yourself, maybe from somewhere else. And it keeps coming till the day it stops.
Daniel Poppick is the author of the National Poetry Series winner Fear of Description and of The Police.
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