Róisín Murphy, “Hairless Toys”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #96 – released May 8, 2015)

Track listing: Gone Fishing / Evil Eyes / Exploitation / Uninvited Guest / Exile / House of Glass / Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt) / Unputdownable

After Overpowered failed to connect with a wider audience, Róisín Murphy seemed to be in no hurry to put out another album, even as Lady Gaga took its look and sound to the bank a year later. Instead, Murphy went on an extended hiatus: she became a mother (twice), occasionally surfaced as a guest vocalist (most notably on “Don’t You Agree” from the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim life-of-Imelda Marcos concept album Here Lies Love) and released a few alluringly titled one-off singles of her own (“Orally Fixated”, “Simulation”.) Mi Senti, an EP of Italian-language songs, appeared in 2014; the stylistic range across its six tracks spoke to her inclination to experiment and defy expectations, but it was only a mere inkling of what was to come when her next album finally arrived a year later.

Hairless Toys decidedly does not pick up where Overpowered left off; nothing on it is as radio-friendly as “You Know Me Better” or as danceable as “Movie Star”. Its eight tracks sprawl across fifty minutes with most of them hovering around six. When first single and opener “Gone Fishing” dropped a few months before the album’s release, I did not know exactly what to make of it. Murphy’s submerged yet steady vocals fluttered in, out and all around a collage of mechanical beats and synths, all of it layered as to feel peculiar but not entirely off-putting. With lyrics inspired by Paris Is Burning, a documentary about New York City drag culture in the late ’80s (she refers to “The children of LaBeija”, meaning the “house” of performer Pepper LaBeija), Murphy fashions a paean “to building another kind of family nest” for all those stigmatized by their own blood relatives (though the song title remains either a mystery or a pretty obscure reference.) Verse after verse, it percolates on, its hooks not reaching out to hug the listener but creeping along the sidelines, only to occasionally, suddenly, ever-so-briefly emerge before retreating back into the ether.

While certainly more cerebral than anything before it in Murphy’s discography, Hairless Toys is still, at its core, comprised of pop songs—leisurely-paced, heady, at times quixotic pop songs, but ones still sporting hummable melodies and verse/chorus/verse structures. Following “Gone Fishing”, “Evil Eyes” is a slightly sharper entry point for unassuming listeners. An introductory electronic bassline/heartbeat remains a constant throughout, its irresistible strut a solid foundation for Murphy’s dreamily gliding vocals on top (“ho…cus…. / ho-cus, po…..cus….”). It plays like slow-motion disco-funk, graceful but also tense enough that it’s genuinely thrilling when it hits that key change at the bridge at 4:27 and Murphy snaps to attention: “Gonna put those demons in their place!,” she exclaims, as a call-and-response with the phrase, “Get to know them!” (See the song’s bonkers music video below, and in particular, how she chose to visualize this part.)

“Exploitation” clocks in at nearly nine-and-a-half minutes and was still chosen as the album’s second single (albeit in a four-minute edit.) Kicking off with a boisterous, galloping, thirty-second-long synth-and-percussion fanfare, it deftly settles into a subdued thump-a-thon driven by a repeated three-note hook. “Never… underestimate / creative people / and the depths that they will go,” Murphy sings, again forever wafting through a scurrying beat, pausing to ponder the question, “I just don’t know who’s / who’s exploiting who?” in the chorus. The album version’s back half is entirely instrumental, shifting from house music to straight-up trance, the melody gradually dissolving into abstraction over a series of seemingly endless piano chords and electronic noise. Weird as it may be to some (most?), it’s less a line drawn in the sand than Murphy asking her listeners, “Why separate art from pop? Why can’t they co-exist?”

It’s a question Hairless Toys returns to often without making excuses or really any concessions for either side. Combining fat, heavy synth bass with flowery do-do-do’s over what roughly amounts to supper-club funk, “Uninvited Guest” is one of the album’s most playful tracks, particularly in its baritone “whoah, whoah, whoah’s” in the chorus’ background and its cheerful whistling hook; it also transforms into one of the most gorgeous songs here when, at the three-minute-mark, the backbeat suddenly vanishes and an extended bridge unfolds with luxuriant chord changes and lush layers of guitars and multi-tracked vocals, growing more impossibly lovely until the beat resumes a minute-and-a-half later.

“Exile” is arguably even more unexpected a left turn than the back half of “Exploitation”. An honest-to-god, morning-after torch song heavy with twangy guitar, reverb, a little pedal steel and briefly, an eerie, gurgling, horror-film synth noise, it resembles a country death song for a David Lynch film with Murphy speak-singing most of the lyrics rather than sounding off like a siren. And yet, it’s also the most traditional, straightforward tune here (also the shortest at four minutes.) Like much of Hairless Toys, it greatly benefits from extra space to breathe and further ponder one’s surroundings while also both paying homage to and completely subverting an entire musical genre.

While shorter than “Exploitation” by over two minutes, “House of Glass” is almost its mirror image: disclosing its most blatant hook right away, it still sounds tentative at first, a somewhat wispy tone poem. Thankfully, it builds up rather than drifts further apart, becoming danceable midway through. Murphy’s vocals alternately peacefully float through the air (“People / who live / in / glassssss / hou-sesssss”) and cut it like a fine blade (rapidly singing, “Little pieces of a broken dream / Scattered in a million different places.”) Layers accumulate as everything proceeds, from guitar riffs and electro-xylophone runs to drunken, elongated “loo / loo / loo” vocals. The pressure builds, but deliberately, it never really climaxes.

On another album, “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)” could be a delicate, heartrending ballad, its two chords gracefully buoyed by an acoustic piano or string quartet; here, its simplistic melody merely serves as a skeleton for an atmospheric wash of ebbing-and-flowing synths and various electronic textures, as Murphy’s vocals become less of a focal point and more just another element in the cavernous mix. As for that inscrutable title (what the hell is a “Hairless Toy”?), producer Eddie Stevens supposedly mistakenly heard those words instead of the song’s original title, “Careless Talk”. In a typically quirky Murphy move, it just stuck for both the song and the entire album.

Leave it to Murphy to also place her best song here at the very end. In great contrast to the preceding track, “Unputdownable” is, at the onset, pretty spare—just tambourine, Murphy’s vocal and a repeated, ascending eight-note piano hook. “You are my favorite book,” she sings, and proceeds with a series of clever reading-as-love metaphors: “You’re unputdownable / a story so confounding / the pages turn so easily,” and “I’m fully occupied / reading between the lines.” Sparse synth blips and bleeps materialize throughout, but there’s also an effective silent pause before a dramatic Spanish guitar strum transforms the entire song at its bridge and Murphy thrillingly wails, “Well, I’m left in confusion / by your epilogue.” This occurs again at the song’s climax and if anything, the out-of-nowhere guitar’s even further heightened by the introduction of a backbeat, some cowbell and a tart synth that together transform this into a glorious anthem: “If you’d allow me / to read your mind,” she sings, repeating those last four words over and over as “Unputdownable” simmers to a satisfying yet lingering close.

Rather than coasting on her past successes (and failures) as a member of Moloko and as a solo artist, Murphy chose to emerge from her hiatus with a leap into the unknown. Sure, one can detect isolated bits and pieces of Hairless Toys across her prior discography (parts of “Uninvited Guest” could easily slot into 2005’s Ruby Blue); strung together, however, they’re revelatory, collectively pushing the boundaries of what one could expect from her and, for that matter, of dance-pop in general. If 2016’s Take Her Up To Monto (culled from the same sessions as Hairless Toys) pushed them even further (occasionally to its detriment), her subsequent work with producer Maurice Fulton found a way to render her music as both fresh and familiar—particularly his radical remix of “House of Glass”, which turned it into a lucid slap-bass odyssey Alexander O’Neal could’ve sung in 1987. Releasing four 12-inch singles with Fulton in lieu of another LP in 2018, Murphy remains an iconoclast and, more than two decades into her career, still an artist to watch.

Up next: Post-modern, post-genre, post-gender, post-?

“Unputdownable”:

“Evil Eyes”:

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