November 2020

Arts & Letters

The last days of disco: ‘Róisín Machine’

By Lesley Chow
Róisín Murphy’s latest album is unusually mature pop driven by restlessness

“Murphy’s Law”, the standout track from Róisín Murphy’s fifth solo album, Róisín Machine, is instantly beguiling. In the spoken intro, she comes across as a woman emerging from hiatus, trying out phrases against a sparse keyboard line. As the keyboard shifts into an irresistible groove, reminiscent of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls”, the rich textures of Murphy’s voice become warm and softly coaxing. The unfurling of that voice reveals an artist at the height of sensual power. At the age of 47, the Irish singer-producer has earned the right to a namesake track, as well as a self-titled album, nearly a decade in the making.

An inveterate smoker, Murphy’s voice has ­thickened considerably over the years, and is all the more haunting for it. She is no longer the darting, flyaway presence she was on her former electronic duo Moloko’s great club hits, “Sing It Back” (1998) and “The Time Is Now” (2000). In “Sing It Back”, her tone was so seductively light she seemed to be embodying the siren sound of melody itself. 

On “Murphy’s Law”, that sprite-like quality has given way to a voice with distinct fibres and a built-in resistance to the groove. It is less supple than before, but has magnificent, wine-dark tones in its lower range, and the timbre is like a thick silk velvet, worn away in parts. It may be the most alluring sound in pop today. 

This is not just the decorative rasp of a Lana Del Rey or Billie Eilish, signalling premature sophistication. It is an aged voice, capable of delivering a sense of yearning and frailty as well as toughness. When, in the single “Something More”, Murphy sings of “young lovers in my bed” and “boys who ease the pain”, it seems like more than an affectation. The vocal has a hunger and urgency not often associated with maturity: a sense of compressed passion and ambition, a need to soar (“Maybe this could be the last time I feel the strain … life just keeps me wanting”). The Róisín machine is still driven by restlessness.

It is rare to hear an aged female voice in pop today. The industry shrinks from age, perceiving it as the ultimate shabbiness – not only unmarketable but unfathomable, and lacking influencer cred. And, although the adult disco sound has been taken up by a number of contemporary female singers, very few acknowledge the effects of time or even of mortality in their mood and lyrics. The days of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand – who came together to sing of midlife anguish and everyday stresses in “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” in 1979 – seem very distant. 

Kylie Minogue may be in her fifties, but her music certainly doesn’t push the age angle – her image is sealed as a perennial Aphrodite, golden and smiling. Her voice is uncreased. Sonically and visually, Alison Goldfrapp and St. Vincent are airbrushed out of sight: they are glacial sci-fi goddesses, impregnable to touch. The production of Jessie Ware’s most recent album has a glossy, ageless veneer, considerably slicker than that of her extraordinarily sensitive 2012 debut, “Running”. Dua Lipa might do vintage disco, but it’s without the heartache or the wear and tear: her sound is sleek and markless, even by the standards of a 25-year-old. 

Murphy can play the fashion queen with as much hauteur as any of them – glamour and nightlife have always been serious business for her – but her full-bodied vocal style recalls that of 1980s Dusty Springfield, with its mix of tenaciousness and vulnerability. In the tracks “Jealousy” and “Incapable”, her character claims to be above emotion – an immovable object taunting an irresistible force – but the abrasions in her voice imply otherwise. Murphy’s wintry, chapped style on “Incapable” suggests a woman who is numbed rather than aloof, while the anthemic finale “Jealousy” moves from a pose of chic nonchalance to raging desire and raw energy. 

The subject of age is vitally addressed in two songs. In the first verse of “Shellfish Mademoiselle”, Murphy evokes the spidery fragility of the seventy-something Blossom Dearie, and later asks: “How dare you sentence me to a lifetime without dancing / When my body’s built for feeling and keeping good time?” The idyllic chorus denies anyone’s right to question her clubbing “when I’m already lost in the groove”. 

“Murphy’s Law” finds her in fear of being relegated to cold domestic comforts: her wistful tone as she envisions being “locked up in this house” or “making do and mending” is exquisite, her best vocal work yet. The Murphy of the ’90s, at the peak of Moloko’s fame, would have glided over the lyric, but here she carries the weight of history and previous relationships (“There’s other people’s feelings to think about, not just you and me / The small-town reality”).

From the ’70s into the early ’90s, the trope of a romantically ravaged woman was a mainstay of the pop charts. A teenager wanting to get marked up by life could listen to Deborah Harry telling us she was “no debutante” in Blondie’s “Dreaming” (1979), or work through the sagas of Randy Crawford’s “Street Life” (1979), Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1984), Carly Simon’s “It’s Hard to Be Tender” (1986), Shakespears Sister’s “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1989), Stevie Nicks’s “Rooms on Fire” (1989), Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” (1990) and Kate Bush’s “Rubberband Girl” (1993). It wasn’t all fashionable jadedness. The female characters of these songs looked back on their wreckage, noting the toll that age and disappointment had taken on their voices, but taking pride in their conquests and survival. 

Back then, the prospect of a long, tortured history of affairs afforded female stars a necessary and convincing glamour. For songwriters, the lost lady became a transfixing muse. Odes were sung to ruined women named Rhiannon, Maxine, Roxanne, Candy, Sally; supposedly in regret, but mostly in awe of their enduring mystique. As late as 1993, Deborah Harry’s single “Strike Me Pink” was the confession of a weary diva addressed to a young suitor, in the style of Marlene Dietrich. 

That romance has long gone. The industry now prefers a distinctly youthful star with a patina of “soul” (the term visual merchandisers use for roughing up props and surfaces to give them a vintage feel). Grit is presented as a feat of art direction rather than hardened experience, as with Billie Eilish. Ageing has replaced overt sexuality as the taboo, and it carries a whiff of the sordid. Pop music has no time for the female veteran – as far as its marketers are concerned, a mature voice struggles not to irritate, let alone attract.

Róisín Murphy is an anomaly. Her songs have an aura of lateness, musically as much as in life: they conjure a performer in the last days of disco, making a couple of starry moves on the deserted dancefloor. In this twilight world, disco no longer carries its promise of endlessness or exuberance. It is not the whirling centre of a culture but the tail end of a movement, occasionally revived for sparks of excitement.

Still, a body that is “built for feeling” can fight the good fight. Rather than adopting the icy stasis of her peers, Murphy’s glamour on this album thaws to an approachable warmth. Part of this is her emotional register, the sense of a guarded tenderness and wary reserves of longing. Even as her long-time collaborator DJ Parrot builds glitzy palaces of sound around her, the feeling that dominates is Murphy’s restlessness, the “life just keeps me wanting” urge of “Something More”. 

The excellence of the machine is not enough: what we’re left with at the end of the album is an unsated sensation of curiosity and appetite. In “Murphy’s Law”, an old romance has died down to its embers, although “just one match could relight the flame”. Lyrically, the singer likes to declare herself a “selfish mademoiselle”, incapable of attachment, passion or obsession – all the second-hand emotions. But somewhere in the depths of the machine, love is alive.

Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is an Australian writer on music and film. Her book, You’re History: The 12 Strangest Women in Music, will be released in March.

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