May 2015

Arts & Letters

Secret diva

By Anwen Crawford
Róisín Murphy ends an eight-year absence from pop with ‘Hairless Toys’

Róisín Murphy has all the characteristics of a great pop star, except fame. She’s got the poise, she’s got the voice – a light, supple contralto, which she can bend from seductive to sardonic and back again – and, most importantly, she’s got the look. There was an icy blonde getting around town in space boots, pillbox hat and knitted pompoms before Lady Gaga, and her name was Róisín Murphy. Chances are you’ve never heard of her.

Murphy began her musical career as one half of the duo Moloko, which formed in Sheffield in the mid 1990s, just as electronic music, thanks to groups like Portishead, Sneaker Pimps and The Chemical Brothers, was undergoing a chart revival in Britain. ‘Sing It Back’ remains Moloko’s best-known song, a prime slice of disco revivalism that barely charted on its initial release in 1999, but which, courtesy of half a dozen remix versions, became a near-ubiquitous staple of budget CD compilations and television soundtracks. Moloko broke up in 2003, after four albums, and Murphy went on to make her first solo album, Ruby Blue (2005), with the prolific English musician and producer Matthew Herbert. Her second solo album, Overpowered, followed in 2007, and now comes her third, Hairless Toys, released this month.

Hairless Toys is the best thing Murphy has done. It is thematically coherent and musically balanced between Murphy’s popular and experimental impulses. Well-established electronic styles (a touch of house, a pinch of disco) detour into stranger avenues, but the songs never sound forced. The diffidence of Hairless Toys reminds me, in a sideways manner, of Radiohead: the Radiohead of In Rainbows (2007) or The King of Limbs (2011), two concise, beautiful albums that sound like sketches for something grander but thankfully unrealised. Like Radiohead’s lead vocalist, Thom Yorke, Murphy is self-aware; she sings as if she’s cocking an eyebrow at you, as if too much effort or feeling would be an embarrassment. Though Murphy is a more unabashed performer than the prickly Yorke could ever hope to be, they share a core reserve. It is a trait that could be described as very English, were Murphy not Irish-born.

A Fenian might hate me for saying it, but there is something very English about Murphy, in her combination of aloofness, eccentricity and grit. (Murphy moved to Manchester with her family when she was 12 years old, and remained there alone, a teenager on the loose, when the family moved back to Ireland three years later.) These qualities were pushed to the limit on Overpowered, where the music’s dance-floor momentum was married to a series of film clips that set our outlandishly dressed heroine amid the humdrum of greasy-spoon cafes and night buses. Overpowered was chip-shop disco, brilliantly executed, and in a just world it would have made Murphy a star. That it didn’t might partially explain the eight-year wait for Hairless Toys, though Murphy has since been involved in various one-off musical projects (including an Italian language EP, Mi Senti, released in 2014), and has also become a mother of two.

Hairless Toys has no obvious hits, which doesn’t hinder the album’s pace – it probably helps. (Overpowered was front-loaded with excellent singles, which hardly encouraged a listener to stick it out to the end.) Though the album is a mere eight tracks, only one is shorter than five minutes, while the lengthiest clocks in at over nine. That track, ‘Exploitation’, is as representative of the album as any (an edited version was released as a single in late March). It has a softly pulsing, four-on-the-floor rhythm and a woozy, three-note synthesiser riff. “I just don’t know who / Who’s exploiting who,” sings Murphy – the power game she’s describing could involve sex, romance, finance, or all three. When her vocal drops out, the gap in the mix is slowly filled by a series of humming machine-generated tones, as if the song were becoming unbuilt, its basic wiring on show.

Much of the record goes on this way, driven by minimal electronic instrumentation and programmed percussion, with occasional use of guitar and a slightly out-of-tune piano. Murphy’s voice is nearby but almost muffled, like she is singing too close to the microphone. The fuzzy boundary between distance and intimacy works; it reinforces the outsiderness that Murphy sings about. ‘Gone Fishing’, for instance, the album’s opening track, is inspired by Jennie Livingston’s cult documentary Paris Is Burning (1990), which captured the gay and transgender ballroom community of New York City. Ballroom in this context doesn’t mean waltzes and quadrilles, but rather an elaborate, highly competitive subculture in which ball contestants “walk” in a number of categories designed to show off both their fashion nous and their ability to imitate (and parody) straight styles. “Expensive things are the cheapest thrill / No such thing as overkill,” sings Murphy.

Madonna took ballroom culture into the mainstream with her chart-topping 1990 single ‘Vogue’, which referenced the distinctive movement style that ball contestants use, known as vogueing – in part, an imitation of catwalk modelling. Murphy’s interest in ballroom feels less exploitative: distanced by time (‘Vogue’ was 25 years ago, after all), but deepened by her own interest in fashion. British pop has always been more fashion-conscious than its American cousin: more carefully attuned to class-based dress codes, while open to the possibility of these codes being scrambled. No coincidence that David Bowie, pop’s greatest peacock, is English. Murphy herself belongs in a British lineage that includes Alison Goldfrapp, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and the wonderful Sarah Nixey: vocalists who combine an aristocratic mien – though none of them are born aristocrats – with pop surreality. (Hairless Toys! What a title!) When Murphy sings on ‘Gone Fishing’ of ridiculed outcasts, it feels as if she is singing as one of them.

On ‘Uninvited Guest’, Murphy pictures herself “walking the streets, wandering aimlessly”, while a funk bassline underpins her excursions. Like most of the songs on Hairless Toys, ‘Uninvited Guest’ is long enough to shift style partway through: the bassline disappears and the mood becomes more dreamy, burnished by shimmering cymbals and layered backing vocals, before the song returns to its original arrangement. “I could be well dressed, even on the money I’ve left / I could buy another day of nothing,” sings Murphy on the chorus.

‘Exile’, the album’s midpoint and shortest song, is an unexpected swerve into easy-going country rock, of all things. Then comes ‘House of Glass’, a return to electronica. The song’s title harks back to ballroom culture, in which participants belong to a “house” (like a fashion house, but also like a family) whose members compete against rival houses for trophies and glory. “We were glasshouse girls / In our plastic wigs and pearls,” opens Murphy, over a metronomic beat that is matched to shifting chord progressions – the song’s rhythmic foundation is solid, even if its melodic walls are fragile. “There’s no place to hide / When you’re lit from the inside,” she sings.

Murphy seems both attracted to and repelled by the spotlight. Overpowered was her most overt bid for mainstream attention, and though she commands a dedicated, passionate fan base, Hairless Toys is unlikely to enlarge it by a significant number. Perhaps she doesn’t have the brazenness, or the hunger, to ever truly break through – though the charts’ loss may be her listeners’ gain. She is a secret diva, a star of the imagination. “You’re unputdownable / A story so confounding,” she sings on the closing track, and she could be describing herself. The song opens out with acoustic guitar, until it echoes Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. Like most things to do with Róisín Murphy, it’s a twist you couldn’t have predicted.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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