The melancholy greatness of "All My Friends."

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 12 2007 2:45 PM

"All My Friends"

The melancholy greatness of the LCD Soundsystem hit.

Ecstasy is a hell of a drug. Like many pill-shaped thrills, it reminds one that he or she is alive by slowing down the unforgiving march of time into a jumble of eternally pleasurable moments. The effect: a vision of the world that is ultimately unsustainable. It is important to keep this in mind when listening to "All My Friends," the brilliant and deeply nostalgic new single from LCD Soundsystem. While the song bears all the traits of a ubiquitous dance-club hit, this only half-explains its massive popularity. At heart, "All My Friends" is a poignant piece of songwriting designed to resonate with those in the upper limits of the 18-to-34-year-old demographic. It's a song written by a middle-ager that looks back upon the kinds of simple momentary glories it's likely soundtracking this summer: hanging out, joking around, escaping into flings, and dancing on drugs.

As if to underscore the song's wide appeal, the single's late-May release was accompanied by two strong cover versions that reminisce about different times: a New Order-mimicking version by Franz Ferdinand and a jagged, stunningly weary one by John Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground. But "All My Friends" is most striking when delivered by James Murphy, the 37-year-old one-man band behind LCD Soundsystem. Murphy is best known for his partnership with Tim Goldsworthy as the heralded DFA (originally Death From Above) production team. The pair's aesthetic compresses about 30 years of parallel traditions—the spastic aggression of punk and postpunk; the glamorous thump of disco and house—into a lean, polished but unclean, posteverything sound. In 2002, they released a brilliant run of singles and remixes for the Rapture, Le Tigre, and Metro Area, among others, and a new republic was born. Murphy and Goldsworthy had somehow collapsed the divide between timid, sedentary indie rock fans and the witless hedonists of too many dance floors. (On this latter count: Even Britney Spears requested a DFA track for one of her albums.)

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DFA's reference-heavy sound is meant to be playful—those cowbells are struck with the utmost sincerity. It is LCD Soundsystem that allows the outspoken Murphy a forum to convey this. Despite LCD's seemingly ironic gloss—the debut single, "Losing My Edge," coolly name-checked about 50 bands beloved by snobs; a more recent song is titled "Get Innocuous"—Murphy's songs are about fearless, unashamed thrill-seeking. (This is often achieved by losing oneself, dignity and all, on a spectacular night out.) Springy bass lines and cascades of synths are met with Murphy's calm, impassive, Mark E. Smith-like vocals. It's a cautious, pretend detachment: a moment of pause before launching headlong into something great.

"All My Friends" embodies this ethos flawlessly. While its galloping piano, aerobic bass line, and assembly-line percussion are mighty enough to traverse the farthest reaches of the stadium, the song's anthemness obscures the fact that it is ultimately a lone man's sigh. "That's how it starts," Murphy begins, flatly, as though the tale has been told many times before. Connections are made. Things begin well enough—"We set controls for the heart of the sun," Murphy sings, a tiny lift in his voice. But eventually the moment evaporates (as it must), and life settles into a dreaded plainness. One day you arise from bed, contemplate your job, apartment, and the person next to you, and wonder where the time has gone. Friends are off somewhere else—it is always somewhere more fun—and you think about how great it would be to see them all at once. The lyrics are delivered in a Didion-like calm: We dance and do drugs, in lieu of falling apart.

The narrative is scattered and episodic, like a poem, and it conveys random snatches of feelings—the excitement of a new city or the intrigue of courtship, for example. There are many wonderful songs about love and all its attendant highs and lows; there are not as many about the uneventful nature of most relationships, or the simple stability of a good friend. It is far more romantic to retreat into those gorgeous, perfect, and inaccessible moments than to confront everything those moments have wrought. This is one of the lessons of growing older—a common theme in Murphy's songs—and it's captured in the song's poignant self-confrontation: "You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan and the next five years trying to be with your friends again." It is the antipode to last year's unavoidable summer hit, Peter, Björn and John's "Young Folks," wherein all anxieties about a blissless future are stemmed by the good, clean fun of talking all night. The insistent, mechanical beat of "All My Friends"—and the implication that those friends are elsewhere, waiting—reminds us that this is impossible.

Electronic dance music is not known for its eloquent songwriting. But LCD's runaway hit—along with last year's Junior Boys hit "In the Morning"—finds inspiration in the age-equalizing democracy of the dance floor. "All My Friends" is melancholy, but its triumphant backdrop saves it from growing dreary. It is a perfect balance: There are such things as romance and ecstasy, but there are consequences. All that we have for now are the good moments, which are to be cherished. In this case: an astonishing song, and the pleasant shock of recognizing my newly 30-year-old self within it.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.