Arts album review

Róisín Murphy — Hairless Toys

The charismatic queen of alternative dance music is back with her third solo album

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Róisín Murphy, who released her third solo album Hairless Toys this May.


Hairless Toys

Róisín Murphy

Record Label: Play It Again Sam

Released May 11, 2015

When her longtime romantic relationship and music collaboration with Mark Brydon — the other half of the now-defunct electronic music duo Moloko — ended, Róisín Murphy swiftly launched her solo career with the 2005 album Ruby Blue. A peculiar and refreshing record, filled with unusual combinations of brass instruments, dance rhythms, and sounds taken from everyday life, Ruby Blue garnered very positive reviews from the critics and showed that the Irish singer and producer was not going to be overshadowed by her history with Moloko.

Her distinct niche within the music industry became even more prominent with the release of her 2007 album Overpowered, Murphy’s most accessible and radio-friendly product at the time. The covers on the album’s singles featured Murphy wearing outlandish and remarkably fashionable costumes in mundane situations: eating in a pub, standing at a street crossing, and walking through a park. Singles such as “Let Me Know” and “You Know Me Better” made the UK Singles Chart, yet somehow the album was still considered an alternative form of dance music: her work never became mainstream. Despite the more notable commercial success of Overpowered, Murphy didn’t seize the opportunity to break into the mainstream side of the music industry; instead, she took an eight-year-long break from releasing full-length studio albums.

She remained active by releasing her own standalone singles and working with other musicians and producers, such as David Morales, Mason, and Freeform Five. Last year, she released Mi Senti, a short EP featuring covers of classic Italian pop songs, but it wasn’t until this year that she finally returned with her long-awaited, third full-length solo album Hairless Toys.

Released almost a decade after her sophomore studio album, Hairless Toys vividly mirrors the changes in Murphy’s personal and professional life during the previous eight years. Motherhood, numerous collaborations with other producers, and increased creative control of her work bring a notable sense of maturity and complexity to her new album. Whereas Overpowered gave rise to many upbeat and club-oriented singles, Hairless Toys veers off in a darker and more mysterious direction. Not a single song on the album instantly beckons to the dancefloor, but Murphy doubtless succeeds at maintaining a lively atmosphere on this downtempo record.

“Gone Fishing,” inspired by the documentary Paris Is Burning, serves as a perfect opening song and a bridge between Mi Senti and Hairless Toys. Reminiscent of the rhythms and instrumentation in her covers of “Ancora Tu” and “La Gatta” on Mi Senti, “Gone Fishing” sets the contemplative tone of Murphy’s quiet and subdued dance beats. “Exploitation” and “House of Glass” infuse Hairless Toys with hypnotic trip hop, while “Exile” and “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)” instill a lulling sense of serenity during the second half of the album. “Uninvited Guest,” a Moloko-esque track, gives the album a well-needed sense of playfulness, and the closing downtempo song “Unputdownable” unexpectedly transforms into an upbeat indie-pop track toward the end, successfully offsetting the album’s dominating sense of slowness.

As was the case with Ruby Blue and Overpowered, Murphy avoids the flavors of mainstream pop and electronica on this record. In 2007, when she decided not to use “Off & On,” one of the singles produced by Scottish producer and DJ Calvin Harris for Overpowered, Harris called Murphy “a bit mental” in an interview for Popjustice. The single, which was one of Murphy’s most pop-influenced songs, never appeared on the album and was instead passed on to the English pop singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor. While Murphy’s tendency to avoid using charts-friendly tracks might seem pretentious, it is exactly this way of thinking that makes her music raw, refreshing, and long-lasting. For instance, “Evil Eyes,” the best track on Hairless Toys, is a groovy and funky six-minute-long song that showcases a combination of Murphy’s laidback singing and narrative storytelling. Only briefly does it burst into a thirty-second-long catchy chorus, which is the closest the album ever comes to mainstream. Just as the chorus ends, Murphy returns to a narrative form of singing, leaving the listener with an urge to put the track on repeat in an attempt to understand the quirky, non-repetitive structure of the song.

Another successful aspect of the album is Murphy’s effortless integration of her influences into the essence of the new musical direction. The legacy of Murphy’s longtime idol, Grace Jones, is palpable on Hairless Toys; the narrative form of singing, whispered lyrics, and Murphy’s chic and theatrical outfits in the music videos will certainly remind fans of the years when Jones awed the audiences with Nightclubbing. The strange — almost cartoonish — sounds of the album carry a strong resemblance to the unique and unconventional melodies present on Moloko’s early albums, giving listeners a sense of Murphy’s indispensable contribution to the duo and her progress since the breakup. Many songs bring a fleeting sense of glory and complacency through their subtle lyrics and fragile sounds, just like Paris Is Burning showed the ephemeral but captivating sense of power and security created in the world of ball culture as a response to a hostile and discriminatory reality.

In a press release featured on the website of Murphy’s label Play It Again Sam, Murphy stated: “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.” Indeed, the album will not take you out to the club dancefloors, but it will satisfy your escapism through sublime, fanciful, and alternative dance music — a treat for Róisín Murphy’s longtime fans and a challenging but nonetheless rewarding gift for those who have never listened to her albums.