Róisín Murphy has been one of the most peculiar figures in modern pop music for several years now. She started off as the frontwoman of Moloko, but soldiered on as a solo artist after the band called it a day. During the next few years, she released two excellent solo albums, Ruby Blue and Overpowered, but then she more or less disappeared. Seven years passed before she released an Italian language EP called Mi Senti last year. To that end, Mi Senti seemed to go relatively unnoticed. Perhaps the language barrier kept many of her fans away. Otherwise, well, it was even more artsy than her previous solo works and somewhat inaccessible at that. But, for those who listened to it a few times, it was quite intoxicating, a perfect mix of Italo pop from the ’60’s and modern electronica with a dash of house music thrown in for zest. Hairless Toys basically picks up where it left off; it’s just in English instead of Italian. But it does have many other influences, ranging from Grace Jones to Casablanca Records to, well, the kitchen sink. Murphy does it all, a bit of this here and a bit of that there. And yet the album is very cohesive.
Murphy on the album’s lead track, “Gone Fishing”: “This song was written after I watched the documentary film Paris Is Burning, having read an article which referenced it in a discussion about House music’s origins in black, gay culture. I was deeply moved by this film. “I had to run this far from home” – it’s about the outcasts who could never fit into mainstream society and how they created a safe place in the drag ‘Ball’ scene of New York in the ‘80s. “Will we live on? The children of La Beija” refers to the ‘house’ of Pepper La Beija, who was one of the most notable figures on the scene, Pepper is also quoted in Malcolm McLaren’s song on the same subject ‘Deep In Vogue’. The culture was a flamboyant reaction to persecution and disillusionment, the imagination and bravery of these kids is simply awe-inspiring. I envisioned Gone Fishing almost as a song from a Broadway musical version of this story. The making of one’s own world, a safer world and the creation of a new, better family in music or youth culture is a theme I touch upon elsewhere on my album Hairless Toys.”
The songs on Hairless Toys are not for those with short attention spans. The average song length is six minutes and there’s even one track, the simmering “Exploitation,” which clocks in at 9:25. Between its deep themes and long songs, Hairless Toys is not going to attract listeners who are looking for bubblegum pop. This is as serious as pop music can get. You could call it Murphy’s more subtle, less self-centered version of Björk’s Vulnicura. Or you could simply call it art pop.
“Found a place to express myself,” Murphy sings about halfway through opener “Gone Fishing,” which packs layers of subtle percussion. You could dance to it, but better to bask in its glory, to observe its lyrical genius, which requires your full attention as her vocals are soft and delicate, at times more like whispering than singing. “Feel the sorcerery,” she sings at the very end. By that point you’ve either decided that the song is spell-binding or off-putting. If you truly listen to it with an open mind you’ll probably declare it the former.
If you insist on dancing and don’t find the beats of “Gone Fishing” sufficient to dance to, you need only wait for the next track, “Evil Eyes,” which involves much more sorcerery and heftier beats. “This is really a dream,” she sings, her voice bewitching. It should be noted that this song is much more like her previous albums than “Gone Fishing.” If for no other reason than that, she probably should have opened the album with it, less people just get a bad taste from “Gone Fishing” and go listen to something else. Then again, if you can’t sit through “Gone Fishing” you probably won’t be able to sit through many of the album’s other seven tracks. In any case, “Evil Eyes” is a very sensual song. “Making love’s only make believe / It’s possible to be achieved,” she sings. “If you’re brave enough to take the lead.”
“Who’s exploiting who?” she asks more times than you can count during the above-mentioned “Exploitation.” While it’s the album’s longest song, it’s also the one that passes by the quickest. You’d swear it’s only three minutes long. She could have cut out or shortened the lengthy instrumental part, yes, but better to dig inside your head and induce vertigo. This song makes you feel something, like you’ve taken a drug and it’s just kicking in.
She walks the streets aimlessly, making observations as people avoid making eye contact with her, during the super funky “Uninvited Guest,” which employs old school synthesizers that call to mind the great German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk. The ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are all well represented here. And all at once. It’s impossible to pin it down to one era.
Next “Exile” features country-esque guitars and vocals that sound like they would fit perfectly with jazz music. Or on a Twin Peaks soundtrack, which is to say that they’re mysterious and gorgeous. “It’s a beautiful place,” she sings,” describing the song — and the album — perfectly.