Album Review: Róisín Murphy - Róisín Machine

There’s a misconception surrounding Róisín Murphy that’s followed her for a number of years now, something that sounds nice when written down but is ultimately a completely empty statement. Critics like to point out the unfair way in which Róisín Murphy hasn’t become a global superstar. Off the back of 2007’s impeccable pop masterpiece Overpowered, many jumped on the bandwagon that this would propel her to deserved universal acknowledgment and acclaim. Whether Overpowered should’ve done so is irrelevant. A truer assessment of Murphy’s career is that she has always been destined to be a cult favourite, always leftfield in some way. Murphy has been on an inexorable path throughout her career; from Moloko’s Statues to 2016’s Take Her Up to Monto, she has been honing a notably uncommercial strain of nu-disco, each release perfecting the previous’ imperfections. Róisín Machine is Murphy incarnate: relentlessly danceable and relentlessly uncommercial and relentlessly her.

Róisín Machine is the perfect encapsulation of Murphy’s sound. That’s not to say previous releases have sounded like anybody else – Murphy’s world is a hermetically sealed subsection of the alt-pop world – but instead it stands as the logical conclusion to nearly twenty years of subsidiary disco singles running parallel to the oftentimes challenging music on her LPs. Simulation and Jealousy are re-worked versions of said singles while Incapable, Something More, Narcissus and Murphy’s Law were released in their longer forms as singles prior to the album. These trimmed and altered iterations of the songs sustain the album’s flow without losing the raw energy of their siblings. Along with four new songs, the album is a career-spanning document squeezed through the lens of 2020 Róisín Murphy; less of a release, more of a legacy defining document.

While Disco revivalism is gaining greater traction in the modern pop-sphere, (Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, Jessy Lanza’s All the Time and Jessie Ware’s superb What’s Your Pleasure?) nothing quite comes close to Murphy’s version of it, mostly because she never let it die in the first place – it’s not revivalism when the body never went cold. Each of the ten songs on Róisín Machine keep a breakneck pace, your body doesn’t stand a chance. Even the slower moments like Shellfish Mademoiselle and Something More are limitlessly danceable. This is disco in one of its purest forms, the aplomb to keep pushing boundaries while hitting the pleasure-centres of your brain like a freight train.

All of the album’s songs explode like fireworks…These fireworks are the same ones you fire in your back garden, the danger of something going wrong and the small-scale grandeur making it all the more appealing.
– Kieran Baddeley

The four-minute Jealousy is a non-stop sugar-rush of bubble-gum synths and clipped guitar that never lets up. Something More envelops you in its lop-sided groove and Simulation was such a good song in its original twelve-minute version that the addition of strings and extra loops does nothing to quell the raw animal drive that propels the song’s simple beat. The possibly bass-boosted version of Murphy’s Law is perhaps the most straightforward song here but is so immaculately made, it’s difficult not to marvel at the sheer spectacle of its technicolour groove and seductive pitch-shifted vocals. Anything that can happen, will happen – so goes the basic principle of Murphy’s Law and is used in the song, past its use as a well-deserved pun, as a manifesto for romantic engagement but not in the literal sense. Murphy is decidedly in control of the situation, in control of her own destiny.

All of the album’s songs explode like fireworks. These are not big budget professional displays however, these fireworks are the same ones you fire in your back garden, the danger of something going wrong and the small-scale grandeur making it all the more appealing. For every smooth and streamlined song on the album, there is one that retains the experimental and rough edges of songs like Thoughts Wasted from Take Her Up to Monto. Kingdom of Ends for example, the albums greatest triumph (along with Game Changer) ploughs itself deeper and deeper into the ground with every loop of its insatiable synths, getting thicker and thicker the deeper it goes. By the end, having had no drop or release, the never-ending build reinforced the song’s central message of “keep waking up, six am, getting up, doing it all again.” It encapsulates the monotony of lockdown life while, somewhat paradoxically, giving a reason to get up and dance in its sheer brilliance.

The song also highlights Murphy’s ever-evolving melodic gifts. While 2015’s Hairless Toys had melodies that took multiple listens to worm their way inside your head, Róisín Machine manages to achieve replay-ability alongside instant satisfaction. There’s nothing here as challenging as House of Glass or Exploitation but it is no less profound because of it. Indeed, Róisín Machine is Overpowered on steroids provided by the previous two albums experimental sides. It recasts regression as something to aspire to.

Róisín Machine doesn’t change the game so much as point out all the ways Murphy has subtly changed the game throughout her career. It’s a helpful reminder of the ways in which modern pop is unapologetically indebted to her music.
– Kieran Baddeley

Murphy, perhaps by virtue of its structure, has also managed to turn word economy into an art form. Incapable, the nine-minute version of which was 2019’s greatest achievement, turns a simple collection of phrases into something more affecting than the sum of its parts. “Never had a broken heart – yet I’m incapable of love” must speak to all those who haven’t found said love just yet. It spirals like an Archimedes screw until the words stick as a mantra, they become part of you. This economy comes full-force on Something More where song writing duties were handed to Amy Douglas and, while the song lacks the playfulness of some of the lyrics and arrangements on the rest of the album, is representative of the collaborative process that goes into an album like this; the relationship between singer, song writer and producer. And what production it is by the way: Richard Barratt executes Murphy’s vision with nary a hitch. Off the back of her collaborations with Maurice Fulton, it was difficult to imagine a similar creative output with production in different hands yet the album’s brickwork is so delicate such worries are quickly disparaged.

This economy also has a downside: while the shortened versions of the album’s singles do suit the album format, it’s difficult to hold them against their superior full versions simply due to the quality of the latter. Much like the way in which Complete Music by New Order was superior to Music Complete’s shorter songs, Róisín Machine is strong enough of an album to hold a longer runtime in service of the grandeur that the long-from versions provide. It’s better then, to take the songs as different beasts to the parent songs and in doing so the album coalesces beautifully: listen to the way in which Murphy’s Law’s refrain of “keep on” slots so idyllically into Game Changer and try and argue against dance music in album form.

As a continued purveyor of dance music as an object of art, Murphy herself has become something of an art installation herself on Róisín Machine. The album is shrouded in its own promotional mythology. From the self-referential album title and song names, Murphy casts herself as the centre of attention. How true to life this version of Murphy is, remains to be seen. This is less self-adulation and more a means to an end however – the album’s aesthetic is all in service of enhancing the music beneath. Murphy is no longer the unassuming experimenter seen on Hairless Toys, this is her forcing herself down your throat and commanding your attention. The fact that the listener sits open-mouthed in anticipation is merely icing on the cake. Róisín Murphy is here, serving guttural, pulse racing dance music, dripping in the sweat of countless lost nights out. She knows what she’s doing so why not let the world know just how in control she is with a promotional campaign recasting her as a machine pumping out songs at a rate of knots?

“I feel my story is still untold, but I’ll make my own happy ending” kick-starts the album. Róisín Murphy is constantly shifting and evolving as an artist but Róisín Machine stops a moment to reflect. Murphy story isn’t over, but Róisín Machine is the closest we’ll get to it being told in full. On the pulsating Game Changer, Murphy proclaims “the game changed, I’m the game changer.” Róisín Machine doesn’t change the game so much as point out all the ways Murphy has subtly changed the game throughout her career, it’s a helpful reminder of the ways in which modern pop is unapologetically indebted to her music, despite the lack of commercial success which critics seem so keen to make her albatross. Ultimately however, Murphy isn’t changing any game, she’s playing her own game and will never ever stop.