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Cool and soulful Róisín Murphy

When most of us first heard Róisín Murphy’s voice, twenty-something years ago, it sounded as if it had come from the moon. Murphy was then one half of Moloko, the band she had formed with producer Mark Brydon, and named after the narcotic-laced milk drink in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.

By the year 2000, Moloko had met with some success – a tour with Pulp, a song on the Batman & Robin soundtrack, an unexpected chart hit scored with a Boris Dlugosch remix of an old album track, Sing It Back. But it was The Time is Now, released shortly after the turn of the millennium, that made Murphy’s voice register. The song’s urgency seemed to speak to our preoccupation with time – the old age fading, the future now before us, and sounded at once hugely modern and like a vault-hauled soul classic. Electronics met Curtis Mayfield strings and a floor stomper beat, and above it all rose Murphy’s voice, with its Minnie Riperton lightness and shimmer.

She sounded like the woman you watched dancing alone and impeccably dressed at a nightclub so hip it barely bothered to have a name

Meanwhile the video showed her moving in slow motion, with ice blonde bowl cut and one-shouldered purple disco gown. She looked cool and soulful and divinely untouchable, like Tilda Swinton with tunes; she sounded like the woman you watched dancing alone and impeccably dressed at a nightclub so hip it barely bothered to have a name.

This month, Murphy released her sixth solo album, Hit Parade. Made with German producer DJ Koze, it manages to marry a sense of brittle high art and sheer, delightful pop. It is witty and warm and effortlessly chic. It proves beyond measure that Murphy is still that girl.

By rights it should have been immediately celebrated as a masterpiece, a consummate example of an artist’s deepening power. But as you may have read, Hit Parade’s release has been somewhat overshadowed by the fall-out from a post Murphy made on a Facebook group, questioning the use of puberty blockers for trans children. It was a peculiar move for the singer, a rare public wrong step that alienated her from a fanbase that has long included large numbers of the LGBTQ+ community and those inhabiting the more liberal quarters of society.

Murphy apologised. The dust tried to settle. But still, no one was quite sure how to greet Hit Parade.

One has to hope there is a way through, that a kind of reparation is possible, because for the world to reject this record, for these songs never to reach a huge audience, would be a very sad thing for music. Every single track is sublime. From the sultry flicker of What Not to Do to the pulse of Hurt So Bad, to the unctuous funk of The House and the album’s seven-minute heartbreaker, You Knew. Genres wind, songs turn left instead of right, moments of breathy human intimacy become blurred by dissonance and digital flourishes.

Murphy has always had a fine taste in production partners, from her early days with Brydon to her work with Matthew Herbert and Maurice Fulton. But in DJ Koze, she seems to have met someone who meets her creative impulse and appetite. The story of Hit Parade’s creation only feeds the record’s charm – Murphy and Koze spending several years on its making, she in London, he in Hamburg, sending songs back and forth. Whatever Murphy wrote, Koze turned upside down, spun it sidewise and sent it back.

In this way, the pair birthed tracks such as Two Ways, which began life as a country tune, before finding itself reconjured as a kind of curdled trap masterpiece. Murphy was delighted, inspired, down for the challenge.

What Murphy has always done so well, since those early Moloko days and on through her solo career, has been to harness sensuality and hound it into a kind of delirium. There is desire and obsession in abundance on this record, a constant shift between bright ecstasy and something sour and dark and malignant. By the time we reach album-closer Eureka, passion has been recast as disease, and the singer is begging a surgeon to cut its poison out of her. The album’s path to this moment suggests an artist of rare emotional intelligence. One who moves not just with instinct, but with intellect. Mostly.

In the days after the Facebook comments came to light, Murphy’s label distanced itself from the singer; even as the reviews raved, and the record went into the charts at number five, commentators and music critics attempted the tricky feat of marrying deep praise with disassociation.

It’s a difficult discussion, but I’m not sure distance is helpful here, for anyone. After all, if Hit Parade shows anything, it’s that we are better when we work together, when we listen to one another and re-think our perspectives. Turn them upside down, spin them sideways and send them back. In this way, we move forward.

Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book, “Sad Songs” is out now

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Arts & Culture, Music, October 2023

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