Smarten up, Will: ‘Shut Up and Play The Hits’

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This will be a new series in which I watch/listen/read a piece of media — old or new — for the first time and write about it. The title is paraphrased from an order Jay-Z gave to Nas in “Takeover.” Exciting, I know!

I first encountered LCD Soundsystem through Burning Man. Well, not ACTUALLY attending Burning Man, enduring a handful of days without showering and dancing with molly, but through a writer’s trip to Burning Man. Grantland’s hilarious and often insightful Rembert Browne attended the festival, an installment in his “Rembert Explains America” series: “The highlight of the final party was an extended, extremely loud version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” that nearly brought me to tears, seeing as it’s a perfect song.”

I enjoy Rembert’s writing and taste, so seeing him call a song perfect (even though he’s prone to hyperbole) forced to me seek it out and have my life changed from the desk of my first (and current) job. Just one sentence. It struck me immediately, with the drumming on the side of the kit and low, bassy synth riff. It’s a metered, deliberate song, a song I repeatedly listened to for most of Sept. 10 and subsequent days, even before it was hijacked (or legally licensed — same/difference) for Samsung’s Galaxy Gear commercial.

Since it can take me approximately hella days to listen to an album after percolating on a few tracks, Sound of Silver accompanied me to San Luis Obispo one weekend. BOOM. My first impressions involved, “Hey! This is the song from the Step Brother credits (“North American Scum”)!” but progressed to really, really, really liking the record. I couldn’t have selected a better introduction to LCD than “Get Innocuous!,” the opening track and the epitome Murphy’s signature sound. The incessant piano riff of “All My Friends” insists on being played multiple times daily, and “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is the elegiac ode to the city so many dream of as idyllic. The lesson: I’m pretty good at being six years behind the curve.

So, why not check out Shut Up and Play The Hits, the band’s documentary that covered James Murphy preceding, during and following their final concert at Madison Square Garden in 2011? The film’s first scene if of  a mostly empty MSG, interspersed with fallen white balloons and crushed fans, hugging and crying during what was now the wake  of their favorite band.

And the finale is grand, going out with the loudest of bangs with a nearly four-hour show with guest spots from indie kings Arcade Fire and comedian loop master Reggie Watts. Sure enough, Murphy, Nancy Whang, Pat Mahoney and company play all the hits, only some of which make the rockumentary’s final cut. Murphy’s voice is distorted and typically stripped of dynamism on studio records (not always, though). But the stark difference between singing, say, “All My Friends” straight through on Sound of Silver and in front of 18,000-plus exists, invigorated with vibrato with an operatic quality. Hearing his voice live was similar to seeing Murphy for the first time – I thought for sure he would be someone of Julian Casablancas’ build and hipster idiosyncrasies, not an ordinary looking dude possessing an advanced musical mind.

The average concert film borders on fan service in that it’s produced to be enjoyed by loyal fans; there’s only so much seeing a recorded live show can do for someone unfamiliar with an artist. Odds are, the best way to convert an unsuspecting friend is either A) illegally sharing your illegal copy of an LP or B) taking them to a show to bask in the glory and energy of live music. As much as I enjoy live music and live bootlegs, the in-person experience exceeds the recorded one. While the performances are thrilling in SUAPTH, the out-of-show scenes are the most moving moments. Moments like Murphy slowly waking up with his French bulldog to check voicemails on his phone, only to immediately stop them to stay in bed. Moments like entering the band’s studio/office for an interaction with Keith Wood, the manager, presenting Murphy with a golden statuette of the venue, telling him, “You sold out.” Moments like the frontman heading into the storage unit, examining the relics of a newly departed era, as he stands in tears.

Moments like the interspersed interview clips with author Chuck Klosterman and the then-41-year-old in a chic, seemingly unoccupied restaurant. Klosterman pierces Murphy with deep questions and theories on rock, and the two have a thoughtful back-and-forth that prompts the latter to be forward with genuine introspection. One of Klosterman’s first ideas is that LCD’s exit is “controlled,” incredibly atypical of rock acts (Stephen Colbert humorously echoes the same sentiment: “I don’t think rockers get to walk away like that.” He also points out how bands end by either A) overdose or B) overstaying one’s welcome). How long would Led Zeppelin have gone if John Bonham didn’t down 16 shots of vodka in an hour? Do Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ corpse really think they’re still making impactful music?

But Murphy avoids both issues, forgoing death (thankfully) and retaining a pseudo-mysterious air. Since the final show, he’s been more or less silent, resurfacing to produce Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Mosquito. But, as he alluded to throughout his talking head segments in the film, he’s cut off his fame supply line. For a measure of the volume of his public life, look at his scant Wikipedia entry.

Shut Up and Play The Hits begins with a title card saying, “If it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever,” — fitting given the presence of Funeral record makers Win Butler, Régine Chassagne and others singing back-up. But it’s a hell-of-a eulogy to the musical project that never wanted to tour and stick to small venues, playing in one of the world’s most famous arenas. Even as Murphy projected relief to finish this chapter in his life, he express a desperate, sad realization that it was finally over, as well as a dash of self-conscious decision making after Klosterman asks what the band’s singular failure was.

Even though I think I’m getting out for not those reasons — fear of failure, or fear of the responsibility of getting bigger — it makes me suspicious, because these other reasons happen to also serve that potential fear…I want to look back and be very, very proud of everything that we did, and I feel like right now, with a couple of snafus here and there — I like the way we’ve handled ourselves. But this quitting stuff, even though I’m like, “It’s the right thing…”

I don’t want to be a famous person, because I like riding the subway; I like eating food; I like being a normal person. I like it. I’m 41; I don’t think I could adjust to the kind of weird dichotomy. But is that a good enough reason, if you believe in your band, and you claim to like music, and you claim to like making music for people, is that a good enough reason to quit?

The flittering doubt in its music and finale consumes LCD’s music and farewell film, propelling the 108-minute doc. Hopefully, nearly two years after the grandest of burials, Murphy is at peace with his decision. To this point, it’s been anything but a failure.

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