Song of the Year 2010: Dance Yrself Clean

A while ago, I wrote about how LCD Soundsystem is a dance/electronic band that is actually artful and adequate, and the reasons why. Now, let me dissect the opening track on their record This Is Happening and how it breaks down the limiting barriers of traditional dance/electronic music, as well as analyzing what it’s doing on a second-by-second basis. It’s an absolute tour de force on essentially every level. It’s called “Dance Yrself Clean”.

It is something of an imposing work, being a monolithic nine minutes long. But those nine minutes are utilized so well for so many things. It’s like a short story unfolding, each sonic element adding more characterization or incident or emphasis. In short, it’s brilliant, and I could listen to it indefinitely. I was about to recommend listening along to the track while reading this running commentary, but I think my analysis stretches too long and even the speediest reader would fall behind. So instead, you should give the track a few spins beforehand, get to know it and form some opinions of your own, and then come back here.

This song exceeds, defies and fulfills expectations in numerous ways. It’s a case study in how to write a long composition, how to intelligently mess with structure and dynamics without making that your only goal, how to sonically convey complex thought and meld instrumentation to achieve amazing effects, and how to tastefully play with the audience’s preconceived notions. It’s vocally, lyrically, musically, and instrumentally accomplished.
 

“Dance Yrself Clean” is all about holding tension until the last possible second and releasing it in a grandiose way. Not only does James Murphy totally pull that off, he makes the intervening suspense just as entertaining. Its context and placement is perfect: It kicks off the final album of the decade’s best dance-rock band, which so happens to be their most mature and fully formed work. That polish is evident in its structure. A more uneasy, or less clever group would immediately launch into a fiery uptempo song. Not LCD. They methodically, confidently start off with intrigue, so they have something to build up to. The sleek atmosphere eases you in, only starting to kick ass once you’re fully invested in the tune. That just makes it more effective. Of course, the beginning would bore people if it was too unremarkable, so they make that part insidiously inviting and cool too. Murphy knows the ideal audience has patience for his art, so he toys with that patience. In return, “Dance” offers restraint and release, often at the same time, in a package that is both effortlessly cool and neurotically vulnerable. That is motherfucking CRAFTSMANSHIP, people. It’s perfection. Song of the year, easily.

So, let’s begin.

************************************************

 

We open with unassuming percussion: a low-key beat that’s already fairly complex and polyphonic, and if I may say so myself, very striking and memorable. It has a few organic irregularities in it, including the excellently utilized shaker. The rhythm itself is very precise and angular, but the percussion parts are rubbery and loose, including a cowbell and handclaps. Sometimes an element of the percussion plays two beats instead of one or goes on the offbeat, and other ramshackle noises intrude occasionally to keep things interesting.

Soon enough, there’s a foreboding two-note synth bassline that is the essence of simplicity. It’s the catchiest thing of the year; stately and so unexpectedly hummable. Once those parts are established, James Murphy tentatively, meekly starts singing, in a dire tone but fully in tune. The bass underpinning punctuates his vocals exactly when he enunciates things, preserving tension and interest in what he’s saying. Plus, there’s the intriguing mystery of where the tune is going to go next.

I know Murphy can sing the fuck out of a song if he wants to, so the alternately vulnerable and dominating vocal performance here must have been specifically chosen to be ragged and soulful. It’s crooning and pitchy, hitting unbelievable high notes, giving texture to the proceedings and injecting every ounce of his personality into the tune.

 

“Walking up to me, expecting

Walking up to me, expecting words

It happens all the time

Present company accept it

Present company, except the worst

It happens every night

Ah aaaaah, present company

Excluded every time

Ah aaaaaah, present company

The best that you can find

Talking like a jerk, except you

Are an actual jerk and living proof

That sometimes friends are mean

Present company expect it

Present company just laugh it off

It’s better than it seems

Ah aaaaaah, present company

Excluded in every way

Ah aaaaaah, present company

Makes me wanna stay”

 

The circular phrasing and ambiguous nature of his musings are distinctive and intriguing. They blatantly pinpoint something he wants to express, but the listener doesn’t have a context or reason for it yet. It’s sort of an in medas res situation, as far as the narrative goes. His subject seems inevitable, but he’s looking at it wryly, with subsequent lines cleverly and slightly echoing each other. There’s enough wordplay and homophones to keep things fun and unpredictable, as well.

As I said earlier, this song is all about expectations. While it toys with the audience’s notion of structure, the lyrics also deal with expectations of oneself and others in a social situation, and how they don’t always work out ideally. The words convey this push and pull dynamic for social dominance: Expecting, excepting, excluding, including, and (interestingly enough) Marxism all get mentioned.

Anyway, back to the present. I like the line “Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk, and living proof that sometimes friends are mean”. The first half of the phrase sort of defies normal syntax with a deft, circumlocutive double subversion, and the second half delivers a harsh truth with jarring honesty.“Present company” is such a detached, formal term that you can tell he’s not fully comfortable around his so-called friends. The interjection of each verse cuts off some sort of buildup and evolution in the song, as if James was leaning toward getting worked up but constantly reassured or doubted himself. It’s at once rousing and anticlimactic, methodical and casual, foreboding and tongue-in-cheek. We’re already getting into some complex emotions, here – all conveyed maturely and with the slightest sense of silliness. Murphy also gets bonus points for not saying a single thing in the song that is dead weight which doesn’t express anything. Moreover, none of these ideas are conveyed in a mundane, clichèd way, which is welcome. It also gives the narrative some authenticity, instead of just being words to croon while the melody plays.

A higher singing pitch first shows up amidst all this gloomy, baritone murmuring, seeming hopeful in comparison. It’s in the line “excluded in the night”, coming across as very human and personal. The cautious optimism of “included in the fight” is almost set up like a defeated punchline. In fact, negligence and hesitation is the cause of Murphy’s problems in the first place. He could just stop all the things he’s doing, but he’s afraid about dealing with the emotional impact: “Killing it can only make it worse, it sort of makes it breed”. And so we continue.

The shaker is mixed slightly louder than everything else here and provides a sting of sorts to jolt those listeners whose interest had waned. It perfectly punctuates one of Murphy’s lines. Again, it seems to be leading to at least a cymbal crash, but nope, nothing. It’s suggestive of a rattlesnake strike, but instead, it keeps recoiling. The venomous bite is yet to come. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Murphy keeps dangling the promise of catharsis over the audience’s head and knows that the anticipation is half the enjoyment, finding exactly the right moment to reward people’s patience and diligence.

 

“Killing it with close inspection

Killing it can only make it worse

It sort of makes it breed

Present company accepting

Presently we all expect the worst

Works just like a need

Ah aaaaah, present company

Excluded in the night

Ah aaaaah, present company

Included in the fight

Ah aaaaaaaah, ah aaaaaaaah, aaaaaah, ah aaaaaaah”

 

At this vital juncture of about fifty seconds (the normal attention span of a skeptical listener, and a common length for sampler previews), another point of attraction is introduced. You’ll never in a million years guess what it is, but it’s not a silly novelty – it’s something unprecedented in a dance/electronica song, yet, as usual, James Murphy makes it fit stealthily and naturally.

With harmonies from his band and double-tracking of his own voice, he creates something that sounds a lot like a barbershop quartet. The quaint harmonies wordlessly sing, “Ah-ahhhhh-ah”, presenting a vocal hook for the few folks who weren’t interested yet. And it’s as simple, yet perfect as the other melodies in this tune. The nonindicative phrase they sing perfectly matches the nonchalant, helpless theme of the track. It’s like a weary sigh, and it’s basically the chorus of this section of the song. I have a feeling that was intentional. This line roughly matches the verse melody, but with a dulcet soprano and generally stronger presence, comes across as more direct and confident. In fact, it soon meshes with the verse “personality” to make a bridge of sorts.

A neat sidenote – What have we here? The snare snappily punctuates the end of a measure, and there’s a momentary pause. This is where things start to amp up, right? No, but it is a lovely detail, and a tantalizing trick. Once more, the necessarily release is held off until tension peaks.

What follows thereafter is a lovely and purposefully chintzy secondary synth line that busily circles around the main musical motif. Its tone almost sounds like a medieval recorder or something. It seems to betoken a change in the song, wherein it will build and get louder, but just as suddenly, it cuts off. Gotcha! Again! (Meanwhile, the shaker is going berserk.) This is a catharsis of sorts, just not the kind you were anticipating. It’s similar to a hot pot of water boiling over and letting off steam. But, not thirty seconds later, it does blend into the background, supporting the barbershop quartet hook. And then – at peak levels of unresolved tension, after testing the audience’s patience for about three minutes – it happens.

 

“Don’t you want me to wake up?

Then give me just a bit of your time

Arguments are made for makeups

So give it just a little more time

We’ve got to bring our results

I wanna play it ’til the time comes

Forget your string of divorces

Just go and throw your little hands up

Okay, oh”

 

A powerful snare kicks in, along with a positively blazing synth line where every note is struck with intensity and insane distortion. It’s performed as a mostly static melody, but the rhythm is played with throughout, encompassing the sort of variations a jazz pianist would improvise. What’s more, those variations are modulations of the two-note pulse from earlier, and play essentially the same melody and part in the tune. This is a brilliant touch, as the keyboard is a sort of narrative stand-in for Murphy, alternately quietly fuming and spinning out of control, reflecting his frustration and helplessness.

This conflict between aggression and passiveness also gives the track a very unique structure. It may at first blush seem to be setting up the cheap sonic trick of “quiet beginning leading into sudden loud part”, but it’s handled far more tastefully than that. Murphy messes with that dynamic, exaggerating the volume of each respective section, and even going back to the quiet part once the dancey part seems to have established itself and taken over. These mind games resonate under the surface of the composition.

Now, when the spiky piano shows up, it’s not necessarily the volume and equalization that changes – that would be too crude and obvious. It’s more like the beginning only occupies a small space of the mix (and the performers are actually playing softly), and then it opens up into full capacity while also amping up the energy. Getting accustomed to the initially quiet volume tricks your ears when the normal part shows up, seeming louder than it is and producing a more shocking effect. Even then, the actual loudness only occupies half of the song space, with the stabs of synth and crescendos of percussion. Maybe that’s what keeps the dynamics interesting – there are still tiny ebbs and crests within the noisy part itself. (I do think, however, that the production between the two halves may have been exaggerated a bit to be especially quiet and loud, respectively.) Another part of the jarring effect is that the soft part went on for so long at the beginning that the listener wasn’t expecting it to do anything else this far in. Genius manipulation.

Now, anyone can launch into a double-time freakout after plodding for so long and just coast on that ages-old dynamic trick. But Murphy is creative and dedicated enough to make the loud part legimiately fascinating. Despite the volume and intensity, the song’s energy never becomes numbing or familiar. Due to the lively arrangements, there’s always an unexpected detail coming up to keep you on your toes. One such example is the frequently-used, manic drum fill at the end of some measures. Also, through some sort of mixing magic, the constantly utilized crash cymbal, shaker, etc. never lose their punch or power. Each cymbal splash is sizzling and trebly. The backbeat is just as heavy and striking as the main beat. They’re just different kinds of rhythms. This lends an interesting sound to the piece, as nearly every second has a pronounced, heavy-hitting polyrhythm of some sort. It’s a rich tapestry of noises, what with the winding synths and James Murphy’s now pleading vocals. The urgency and chaos never lets up in these sections, and yet, it’s contrasted with that same laid-back, tense beat from the beginning, which keeps popping up, as if the narrator keeps having flashes of conscience.

James’ vocal melody during this part follows a similar tack, establishing the tune, then varying the register he sings it in and next putting in little fillips, wavers and a little bit of soprano until he’s eventually vamping/improvising/yelling. At this point, the lightning-speed interplay of all the percussion is as thrilling and captivating as the melody. Speaking of which, the kickass main synth part is allowed two wild, unpredictable solos while Murphy rambles and croons.

 

“I miss the way the night comes

With friends who always make it feel good

This basement has a cold glow

Though it’s better than a bunch of others

So go and dance yourself clean

Oh, go and dance yourself clean, yeah

You’re blowing Marxism to pieces

Their little arguments to pieces

It’s your show [x4]”

 

Speaking of which, now would be a good time to talk about the lyrics so far. The opening segment shies away from first and second person pronouns when possible, giving it a detached, matter-of-fact, aphoristic tone. It’s a laundry list offering a bunch of bold, similarly phrased proclamations whose generality presents the monotony and stuffiness of the situation. Then the second part is far more direct and personal; a veritable avalanche of commands, suggestions, kiss-offs, observations and pleas. Not coincidentally, this is when James’ façade cracks and his frustration shows through.

The stanzas in the quiet part are fairly evenly split between containing new lines and repeating or reiterating old ones. This is to reinforce the strange feeling of déjà vu the narrator is feeling in his nightly excursions and social gatherings: the details may change, but the framework is always the same, and it all runs together in a long headrush anyhow. It also makes the tune feel familiar, though unpredictable. He’s not sure where things are headed specifically, but they seem to be generally repeating themselves.

There’s a continuity naturally established by the way the phrasing of many lines echoes the preceding text; everything inevitably flows into everything else. Then, once the verses change and the adrenaline kicks in, Murphy spouts out a series of contrasts. Each consecutive line seems to offer a caveat or alternative to the previous one. There’s going and stopping and more going and waiting and all kinds of stuff. There are stammering, genius paradoxes like “Break me into bigger pieces”. Everyone’s getting younger, despite the fact that it’s the end of an era. There’s a cold glow coming from the basement, which is very descriptive and might just defy thermodynamics. All this clever phrasing further redefines the schizophrenic, complicated themes at work here.

The song’s structure itself is so labyrinthine and misleading that it took me countless listens to notice that the part that gets repeated a lot is actually the chorus. Duh! Who’da thought? But the thing is, it’s sandwiched two-thirds of the way through the track and rephrased a couple times. What kind of chorus does that? A clever, unassuming, shapeshifting one, that’s what kind. Speaking of which, the title of the composition is uttered almost five minutes in. Not the longest I’ve ever seen a tune go before a title drop, but it’s up there.

One of the track’s emotional peaks is a terrifying scream of “It’s your show!” that grows more hoarse and psychotic with each repetition. However, with its undulating rhythms and wavering vocal performances, there are a lot of unexpected breakthroughs and tons of little hooks to find in “Dance Yrself Clean”.

There are even wry, self-aware meta moments when the focus pulls away from the lyrics and lets Murphy break the fourth wall, spitting out seemingly unrelated dance party banalities and feel-good filler. (Examples include the aforementioned “It’s your show!”, “And you go… stop!”, “It’s a go!”, and various drawn-out “okay!”s and “oh!”s.) This also results in some fantastic outbursts, shouts and bellows. They punctuate the tension and deliberation with some good humor and catharsis. The “and you go” line even works in a clever pun.

 

“Work a little bit

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Hey

Every night’s a different story

It’s a thirty car pile-up with you

Everybody’s getting younger

It’s the end of an era, it’s true

And you go…

Stop, stop, stop, stop

Break me into bigger pieces

So some of me is home with you

Wait until the weekend

And we can make our bad dreams come true”

 

But the most impressive, show-stopping moment in the song has got to be the unbelievably prolonged “Oooooohhhhhhhh!” It’s reminiscent of such classics as the Who’s “Bell Boy” and Pink Floyd’s “Sheep”, where ingenious sonic techniques are used to seamlessly blend a sustained note with an imitative synthesizer tone, which can continue the “note” indefinitely. However, in this case, I’m fairly certain that Murphy holds the note all by himself – it’s all man and no machine, which is incredible. The cool benefit of holding a really long note is that it contrasts nicely with the instrumental backing as a static part of the arrangement. I also really enjoy James’ little strained falsetto at the end, if only for the fact that he still hadn’t run out of breath by that point.

It’s so exhausting, it was perhaps a compositional necessity for Murphy to take a break immediately afterwards, so the song goes logically from its cathartic high back to the low-key beat. (And then there’s the charming detail of him audibly heaving and catching his breath when the track calms down, probably muttering about how he should never try that again.) I like that this section reverts back to the earlier formula right when it seemed that the tune was permanently in overdrive mode. However, now the flute-esque synth line is underneath, suggesting that the Narrator has gained some ground or changed in some way since the beginning. Then the brief redux ends and we’re launched into the tangled, noisy fray once more. The dynamic shift here brilliantly highlights the way problems in any relationship develop and stew for a while, and eventually beg to be resolved and talked out. This structure gives the narrator time to think (the quiet part) and act (the loud part).

However, even the action is reluctant and unsure, as the title comes into play. It suggests rebirth through music, also bringing to mind Sonic Youth and their obsession with truncating the word “your”. It’s one of Murphy’s typical nods to hipster culture, as well.

But this idea of catharsis through forgetting problems and having a good time doesn’t actually do anything to patch up the rift between these warring people. So while James makes an effort to get down to business, the allure of escapism is just as strong. He begs the other person to give him a little more time to work things out, to forget their problems and throw their hands up, and admits that while he’d like to see results, he wants to play this song until that time comes. He misses the comfort his friends used to offer him, and uses music to briefly recapture that feeling.

 

“And it’s a go, yeah, it’s a go

And if we wait until the weekend

We can miss the best things to do, oh

Go and dance yourself clean

Go and dance yourself clean

You’re blowing Marxists into pieces

Maybe they’re arguments, the pieces

Oh”

 

I like how his voice is flagging and ragged by the high notes at the end (signaling his mounting resignation and the denoument of the track), but he still hits them admirably and is given some oomph by double-tracking. In one last reversal that, at this point, is probably expected, the song finally comes to rest on that basic beat at the very end. In a sort of musical method acting, Murphy sounds as weary and worn-out as the story requires due to his real-time performing histrionics. Everything has come full circle. And after the second dynamic change fake-out, just when the listener is familiar with the pattern of the unresolved shaker spasms in the background, they finally unexpectedly coalesce into one last great cymbal crash, after the rest of the song had trained you to anticipate otherwise.

This leads to the story’s “falling action”, so to speak. There’s a feeble, tentative benediction of sorts at the end, whose sentence structure breaks the circular pattern earlier stanzas had established, signifies an impending finale to the tune. Murphy’s vocals are even more meek and distant than they were at the beginning, almost as if he was edging out the door while recording just to get away from the situation. It’s a masterful comedown. The elements are all pulled away quickly, but not jarringly, and it ends on a dissipating tambourine whack. The last section is short and sweet enough that its tenuous, nonchalant pseudo-conclusion still hangs in the air after the track stops.

At song’s end, closure is ironically the last thing the narrator feels, as he is sobered and tired of fluctuating back and forth. He is determined to try harder, but realizes that things are doomed to fall apart, and hopes they’ll hurry up so he can just let go. It’s a bittersweet state of affairs, but it’s one he can live with for the time being, as long as he has the release of music.

 

“We should try a little harder

In the tedious march of the few

Every day’s a different warning

There’s a part of me hoping it’s true”

 

With that, this marvelous composition ends, and James Murphy washes his hands of the whole thing, realizing that there isn’t a neat solution. In a postmodern flourish, the ending to the piece is just as low-key and conflicted as its beginning. Plenty was done, but nothing was solved. It’s deceptively tidy and cool, and takes a while to really sink in. This sort of playing around with narrative and dynamic may seem overly soulless and ironic in that it inverts the traditional forms, but it’s only that way because Murphy is so emotionally drained and flustered that he just decides to ignore the problem once he’s aired his grievances about it in the form of a song. Sometimes that’s all you can do: Dance Yourself Clean.

 

 

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