Is it fair to love an album for its last song?
I’m not saying that I don’t like the rest of the album, or even that “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is Sound of Silver’s definitively best song, but it’s certainly true that my particular positive feelings about the album hinge entirely on that song. It’s a song I listened to late at night or in the early morning or on long and quiet afternoons. I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, when I first encountered it. There was a blog I read by a girl who lived in New York—she was funny and charming and smart and literary-minded, and I looked forward to her posts, and I’m almost positive it was in one of those posts that she linked to the song, wrote some things about it. It seemed, then, like a song I should know—she talked about it as if it were common knowledge. Probably because it was common knowledge, I thought. LCD Soundsystem seemed like a big band among people who knew more about music than I did.
There’s something about being lonely in a familiar place. I was getting my Master’s degree in a fifth year, after four years of undergrad at UVA. Most of my friends had graduated the year prior, and left town. Charlottesville is nothing like New York, that’s true. It’s smaller and brighter and cleaner and less anonymous. There are a lot of people there who all look the same. The girls had shiny hair and North Face jackets and Hunter boots. I loved it dearly but also resented it. I loved it dearly and thought I should be happy but wasn’t, exactly, happy, and wasn’t sure why.
I had a poetry teacher once who explained the meaning of ambivalent. People often use the word in conversation as if it’s synonymous with apathetic, to denote something they’re indifferent to, something they don’t care much about either way. But that’s not what the word means. If you feel ambivalent about something, it’s making you feel two opposing feelings—love and hate, say—simultaneously. Belonging and isolation. Fear and joy.
When my teacher taught us this, it blew my goddamn mind. There was a word for it! For that thing! That nameless restless thing. That in-betweenness. Call it complexity. Call it life.
I was in love. (I am always in love.) I mention it only because love really lends itself to that sort of thing. I also wanted to be a writer. (Sometimes, now, I feel like a writer.) I mention it only because language really lends itself to that sort of thing. Both of those longings—the love-longing and the language-longing—come, I think, from a very human sense of isolation. There has been no reason, not really, for me to feel so other for my entire life, and I knew it, and yet. And yet. And yet!
“New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down.” Could there be a more perfect way to describe living in a place like that? A place where everything is both amazing and terrible. The crowds! The dirt! The subways! The choices! A place where you can do anything at any given time would sometimes be exciting and sometimes be paralyzing and probably, often, be both. If you had to pick just one place on this planet to exemplify ambivalence, it would be New York City.
And the song is the anthem of that feeling—this thing that is so great is also terrible. Here I am, feeling melancholy about a thing that brings me such joy. I’m sure I’d feel that way if I lived in New York, but I love the song because I’ve also felt that feeling living in other places. It’s not just about where you live, though. Other songs on the album embody a similar emotional register—a wistful loneliness, an isolation you don’t have to be alone to feel. Is my life what I wish it was? They do this, often, by using refrain to great effect. Sound of Silver is a repetitive record, but the repetitiveness within the songs fulfills a function, and culminates quite purposefully. This happens both lyrically and musically.
“And it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming ‘til the day it stops,” in one song. In another: “Where are your friends tonight?” The same notes pounded over and over on the piano. The same synth beat. Of course, all songs repeat, but the shortness and simplicity of the sequences repeated draws real attention to them. This is, of course, purposeful.
This manic repetitiveness also embodies the chaotic, frenetic environment of New York City (or even just of a busy life, a busy brain—isn’t it remarkable how New York becomes a metaphor). And the songs have a lot of components layered on top of one another—so even if the components are simple and repeated, the multitude of them and the ways they rub against one another creates tension and complexity.
I went to a poetry reading recently where the poet, in his in-between-poems banter, addressed the ways he’d edited his poems and the manuscript comprised of them, and he cited specifically a couple of decisions he’d made to “weird things up,” which had ultimately made the poems more successful and the manuscript publishable. I have tried, sometimes, in my writing, to make less sense. To be stranger and less linear. I’ve never quite managed to be successful in that endeavor. But I enjoyed hearing him talk about his process precisely because I haven’t, yet, figured out what about that makes things work when it works. And I so much respect art that makes good use of chaos—that knows how to harness it.
LCD Soundsystem unquestionably does this on Sound of Silver. The songs are upbeat and melancholy in turn, and through the successful deployment of chaos manage to embody an entire range of simultaneous and opposing emotions. And so, it is fitting that the album concludes with “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” a song that does all of these things—that really embodies, to my mind, what the album is doing as a whole. The song starts melancholy and gains energy, and crescendoes to chaos—everything gets louder, the piano more emphatically pounded, the drums going crazy, James Murphy pushing his voice to its limits. And then, after a brief pause, a little musical interlude serves as denouement—a simple, reigned-in melody to bid us goodbye, on a composed note. Like tidying the room after you’ve thrown a tantrum. The reestablishment of boundaries, rules. Life continuing. Terrible sometimes and wonderful sometimes and only life, after all.