(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #87 – released October 11, 2007)
Track listing: Overpowered / You Know Me Better / Checkin’ On Me / Let Me Know / Movie Star / Primitive / Footprints / Dear Miami / Cry Baby / Tell Everybody / Scarlet Ribbons / Body Language / Parallel Lives
Although she’s crafted an enviable discography over the past few decades, to most, Róisín Murphy remains buried treasure crying out for excavation. Born in Ireland and having spent her teenage years in Manchester, England, she first found fame as the vocalist of Moloko, a dance duo she formed with romantic partner Mark Brydon in 1995. Early songs like “Fun For Me” (whose video actually got a few spins on MTV’s 120 Minutes) had them initially lumped in with other UK female-fronted trip-hop acts such as Morcheeba, Portishead and Sneaker Pimps; in time, they were scoring huge fin de siècle Euro-hits like “Sing It Back” and “The Time is Now” while barely making an imprint in the US (hard to do when your albums (apart from your debut) don’t even get released there.)
Brydon and Murphy split both personally and professionally after their fourth album, 2003’s Statutes—its ambitious sweep yet fine-honed pop-sense revealed how much their music had blossomed in just under a decade. Rather than logically craft a dance floor-ready follow-up, Murphy worked with experimental producer Matthew Herbert on her solo debut, Ruby Blue (2005). Herbert’s sample-heavy technique, where found sounds such as a whirring blender or a clinking bottle are as much a part of the mix as traditional instruments, was pushed to the fore; Murphy welcomed it with open arms, devising songs both relatively user-friendly (“Through Time”) and Kate Bush-level bonkers (“Ramalama Bang Bang”, which ended up becoming Murphy’s most heard song in the States when it accompanied a performance on the reality-TV competition show So You Think You Can Dance?)
For solo album # 2, Murphy moved from indie label Echo Records to major conglomerate EMI and made what is still to-date her most accessible, pop-friendly record, Overpowered. Of course, even at her most straightforward, Murphy can’t help but exude otherness (if you have any doubts, take another look at that album cover.) After a brief preview of its chorus hook (“When I think that I am over you, I’m overpowered”), the title track opens with the words, “Your data my data / the chromosomes match” robotically sung over a bed of squishy synths (I always thought it was “You’re dating my daughter,” which I kinda prefer.) Cerebral lyrical content (“These amaranth feelings / a cognitive state”) mash together with the overtly sensual music (harp glissandos dancing on top of the more grounded electronics; a five-note Yaz-worthy hook repeated throughout.) It’s catchy and confined, yet also teeming with negative space provided by its airy melody and minute-plus instrumental coda.
From there, Murphy reels out one relatively concise, disco-flavored dance-pop gem after another. “You Know Me Better” is as effervescent as early Madonna but with stronger vocals, an excess of hooks (like that recurring tinkling piano) and unstoppable momentum. “Checkin’ On Me” jumps forward a few years to circa-1990 mid-tempo, Lisa Stansfield-esque, blue-eyed Philly soul: her precise syncopation with the song’s jazz-funk rhythm lends it shape and verve while never, um, overpowering the arrangement’s irresistible horn-and-string interjections. “Let Me Know” tricks you into believing it’s a languorous piano ballad before the synth-beat kicks in at the thirty-second mark, transforming it into something worthy of Donna Summer circa Bad Girls.
Having established her pop-star credentials in just four songs (all of which were singles except for “Checkin’ On Me”), Murphy spends the rest of Overpowered slyly expanding what her definition of pop can contain and acknowledge. “Movie Star” goes for wall-of-sound-banger-grandeur, building almost an entire song out of a simple, incessant, some-might-say-relentless two-note analog synth hook over which, Alison Goldfrapp-like, she coos lyrics such as, “You’ll be director / and I’ll be your movie star.” “Footprints” pays loving homage to ’80s Latin freestyle and R&B but not in an obvious, cut-and-paste way; rather, she puts her own spin on it, especially whenever she recites the line, “It drives me crazy when you play these games,” in a near-bratty tone. “Dear Miami” sustains the electro-Latin influence, her reverb-enhanced vocals floating all over the mix, which one could almost call hazy or fuzzed-out if not for the itchy pulse of the keyboards or distorted guitars forever lurking in the background. “Tell Everybody” gets its oomph from a rhythm track heavy with onomatopoeic vocal effects (a hallmark of its producer, Jimmy Douglass), which is enough to hold interest until Murphy gets to the brash, triumphant chorus, where the melody opens up and the song’s working parts gel into a massive whole.
Although Overpowered features multiple producers and collaborators, Douglass’ work arguably bears the sweetest fruit. In addition to “Tell Everybody” and “Checkin’ On Me”, he also produced album highlight “Primitive”. Coming directly after the all-encompassing “Movie Star”, it allows the listener some breathing space with its minimal synth, drum machine and sampled, single-vocal-syllable foundation. “From the primordial soup / out of the dim and the gloom we came,” Murphy begins, before declaring, “We are animals” in a decidedly more forceful way than Olivia Newton-John did at the climax of “Physical”. However, it’s merely build-up for the glorious chorus where Murphy pleads, “I just want to get you out of your cave, man!” On the page, the lyric reads as a silly pun, but when she sings it, loudly, almost scarily, even, you immediately comprehend that any dismissal would be futile. You could call Murphy a vamp, a seductress, a confidant, a co-conspirator, but no matter what each song requires her to get across, she’s always frighteningly convincing.
Apart from “Cry Baby”, a monochromatic, nearly six-minute riff on what she already perfected on “Movie Star”, Overpowered is Murphy’s best album by fiat of being filler-free, and that includes its most atypical track. “Scarlet Ribbons”, the album’s original finale, is a bass-heavy, Sade-like slow dance ballad. Although Murphy nearly overplays her hand with potentially sappy father-daughter lyrics (e.g., “I’ll always be your little girl”), her ease and apparent vulnerability keep things in check. Most editions of Overpowered also contain two bonus tracks; they’re inessential but are not are exactly filler, either. “Body Language” gets considerable mileage out of its motor-disco beat, while “Parallel Lives” has a conveyor-belt rhythm track that complements its tart, soulful melody quite nicely.
Despite its major-label push, inventive music videos and hooks aplenty, Overpowered still sold less than 75,000 copies in the UK and never even received a formal US release (I remember having to buy it as an import on Amazon.) Its failure to connect is somewhat astonishing when within two years, Lady Gaga would become the biggest pop star in the world with an awfully similar visual aesthetic and songs that could’ve been carbon copies of “Movie Star”. Not to completely disparage Gaga’s 2009-11 run of iconic singles, but I can easily imagine an alternate universe where “Let Me Know” and “You Know Me Better” were as ubiquitous as “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance”.
I think the reason for Gaga’s and Murphy’s commercially divergent paths comes down to this: whereas Gaga painted and explicitly marketed herself as an “eccentric”, Murphy, crazy costumes aside, was more the real deal—a perpetual weirdo who didn’t need to call one of her albums Artpop to fully inhabit and commit to both halves of that compound description. While Gaga would conquer the pop charts over the next few years, Murphy almost entirely disappeared from the industry. We’ll return to her when she returns: on her own terms, and with something completely different.
Up next: Burn it all to the ground.