Róisín Murphy’s Time is Now

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

Released in October, Róisín Machine is another firestorm album to add to Róisín Murphy’s impressive pile. The singer has been making great music for so long it would be easy to take her for granted. Murphy certainly believes that to be the case. Two-and-a-half years ago, during a run of singles not receiving all due attention, she took to Twitter to robustly criticise the business.

“I’m crying a lot, tiredness. I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall. I make good and surprising records, I kill myself to make visual, in which I prove it’s about ideas and soul because god forbid anyone should give me a budget. But I get indifference in the industry,” read one of the tweets.

Murphy’s frustration felt like the final mutation of an idea that became embedded in her mind a few years earlier. “I didn’t become a pop star and nobody knows exactly why,” she said in 2015.

Here’s my theory. The time frame for solo artists emerging from groups to become pop stars is usually short. Murphy’s first shot after the dissolution of dance-pop duo Moloko in 2004 was also her best shot. Bravely, she chose not to simply rehash elements of the Moloko formula or jump on a fashionable trend, which, 15 years ago, might have sounded like the Sugababes or Black Eyed Peas.

Instead, Murphy made the baroque, art-dance album Ruby Blue. It’s a brilliant record and was received rapturously by critics, setting the tone for a career that has been full of kind words but short on crossover appeal. And if Murphy did covet mainstream traction, there was also the barrier of being almost 32 years old when the album dropped in 2005. The music industry is rarely in the mood to make a singer – particularly a woman – a star when they are twice the age of what it usually banks on.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Murphy hails from Arklow, County Wicklow, but was upended to Manchester by her parents at age 12. When her family returned four years later, Róisín opted to stay put, a decision that perhaps was an early signifier of the singular nature that would define her musical career.

At age 19, Murphy moved to Sheffield, where she linked up with producer Mark Brydon and formed Moloko. Everyone knows the singles “Time is Now” and “Sing it Back” and let me tell you, they’ve aged better than you think they have.

Away from the hits, the group made consistently daring music. I’m particularly fond of “Fun For Me”, a classic trip-hop number that sees Murphy floss a half-rapped, half-spoken word swagger that includes the lyric, “I dreamt that the bogeyman went down on Mr. Spock.”

The group wound down in 2014 after a decade and four LPs, clearing a path for Ruby Blue. Murphy insisted at the time that though the album was released under her name, it was very much a collaborative process with Matthew Herbert, a producer who had been keen to work with her for years.

Full of brass and woodwind instruments, unobvious rhythms, and angelic vocals, the album is a Busch Wusch Ball of pulsating colours and strange patterns. Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below has been cited as an influence.

There’s “Sinking Feeling”, a big band jazz number scaled down to a minimalist arrangement that could still soundtrack an elephant march. “If We’re in Love” is a convincing promotion of physical intimacy that features a knock-out chorus over Herbert’s feather-light but vivacious orchestration.

Sophomore album Overpowered followed two years later on mammoth label EMI and, facilitated by a bigger budget, featured more dancefloor-friendly, pop-focused tunes. The catchy disco number “Let Me Know” remains Murphy’s only solo single to crack the UK Top 40, peaking at number 28.

Did pop stardom ever really beckon? It’s hard not to look at what Lady Gaga did shortly after Murphy’s solo career began and not deduce that there was an opening for a forward-thinking dance music star. Alison Goldfrapp might be among those who feels the same way.

Murphy’s release schedule became more infrequent. An eight-year gap between albums was broken by Hairless Toys (2015) and Take Her Up To Monto (2016), records that saw her stretch her creative muscles. There’s the dusty western music vibes of “Exile” and the light bossanova of “Lip Service”. Blooming with a vibrant flame scarlet colour pallet, “Exploitation” is one of Murphy’s greatest late night club tracks.

In a way, Róisín Machine finally brings her around to the kind of record that might have launched her star in the mid-2000s. It’s full of muscular dance music built on irresistible grooves, driving synthetic rhythms, massive hooks and the spirit of Anita Ward. The sentiment, though, is of mid-career revitalisation. “I feel my story’s still untold/But I’ll make my own happy ending” are repeated at different points throughout. The message is clear: Murphy isn’t done yet.

So you get songs like the snappy funk number “Incapable”, and “Narcissus”, which features the kind of dynamic strings barely heard this side of “Theme from Shaft”. On “We Got Together,” the jittery synth riff that powers the song like a flux capacitor sounds like it could have been taken from a Sega MegaDrive cartridge.

The title of “Murphy’s Law” suggests a signature hit and that’s exactly what this immense disco floor-filler is. On its surface, the song is about moving on from a break up – a kind of inverted message of “Nothing Compares 2 U”, or if you want to keep things disco, an update on “I Will Survive”.

Alternatively, the lyrics could be interpreted as referencing the career frustrations that Murphy has previously voiced – and how she’s not going to be weighed down by them any longer: “What have I got to lose?/I’m so tired of complaining/Pretty soon I’ll be breaking loose/And the scenery be changing.” Her voice is more forceful than ever as she masters its lowest reaches.

Performing “Murphy’s Law” on The Graham Norton Show in the autumn, Murphy stood perched in front of her band and the biggest disco ball I’ve ever seen. She looked a full-on queen of the genre – if not a pop star then a form that’s just as interesting. And if Murphy is not content with that, at least those feelings are fueling a fire within that’s still powering great music.

“Lovely, good for them,” she told NME when asked about Jessie Ware and Dua Lipa being part of a recent disco revival. “But I’m back to snatch their wigs!”

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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