Róisín Murphy’s Hit Parade is a masterclass in unfussy pop – her best record yet and maybe the album of the year. By Shaad D’Souza.
Róisín Murphy’s Hit Parade
For Róisín Murphy, becoming the world’s most fabulous and daringly experimental living pop star has taken a long time. The Irish-born diva made it big in the ’90s and 2000s as part of the duo Moloko, of “Sing It Back” fame, and yet it feels as if she’s only now being recognised for the musical and aesthetic force that she is.
At the age of 50, she is releasing Hit Parade, perhaps the album of the year – definitely my album of the year – a sweaty and brilliant showcase of her talents as a curator and songwriter. A club record with the warmth and sunniness of a ’90s hip-hop beat tape, it’s Murphy’s greatest achievement yet – the album that will cement her in the annals of pop music history as one of its most fearless leaders.
Murphy spent years attempting to shed the image of herself as merely the singer in a man’s band. She recorded an EP in Italian that’s proved one of the most indelible chapters in her solo career (2014’s Mi Senti) as well as a handful of solo records that worked hard to re-establish her significance in the British pop scene.
Her 2020 album, Róisín Machine, was the best attempt that year to reunite a pop sensibility with the kind of glamorous disco that Murphy grew up with. Unlike artists such as Jessie Ware and Lady Gaga, who also released disco records that year, Murphy was working on hers for the better part of a decade, with one song on the album, “Simulation”, released as early as 2012.
That album showed that Murphy is one of pop music’s foremost innovators – a sophisticated, smart artist who was able to write pop hits, even if they weren’t entering the charts. It also introduced her to a generation of fans who knew “Sing It Back” but didn’t know that the voice behind it had been working steadily for their entire lifetime, collaborating with longtime dance music scene legends such as DJ Parrot to create an album that wasn’t just thrilling for a casual listener, but significant and important to anyone who was present at the time. Róisín Machine was a brilliant entry in the canon of 2020s pop-disco records, but it worked even better as a planting of the flag for Murphy, who had been absent from the pop conversation for many years.
Hit Parade, Murphy’s sixth and best album, is also a record she’s worked on for a long time, at least since before the release of Róisín Machine. It’s a fascinating study of the way pop music can enrich and excite our lives and the ways it can become its own kind of language, a shorthand for desire and romance.
The best song on the record, “Fader”, is a gorgeous and glamorous anthem that, more than most pop songs, captures the elemental feeling of falling in love. Over a lithe, funky beat that’s augmented with rich strings and a hiccuping Sharon Jones sample, Murphy sings about fiercely protecting a loved one in terms that are at once abstract and totally clear: “I’m your favourite baby / This could sustain me / You should play a love song ... Take your hands off hater / Off my baby’s fader / When it comes to this song / You can’t play it too long”. In the world of Hit Parade-era Murphy, lyrics don’t need to delineate lust from heartbreak: a good beat will do just fine.
Hit Parade is produced by the renegade German producer DJ Koze, a favourite on festival line-ups in Australia and the world over for his ability to translate roiling, kinetic house music into a daytime setting. Here, he takes that talent and applies it to Murphy’s music. They’ve worked together before – on two songs from his brilliant 2018 LP, Knock Knock, “Illumination” and “Scratch That”, he turns outtake vocals into resplendent pop songs. On Hit Parade, he treats his work as if he’s a documentarian making a film about an internationally famous pop star. This is a pop album composed of false starts and snippets of Murphy saying things such as “I’m ready, like a rocksteady Freddy” that sound casual but, in Koze’s hands, are turned into iconic pop moments.
This is a mode of pop stardom that suits Murphy. Hit Parade, despite its slightly ironic title, is a profoundly personal record, unearthing feelings of heartbreak and inadequacy that she’s rarely felt at liberty to discuss on record. “Hurtz So Bad”, a funky, minimalist highlight, explores an old relationship in which Murphy felt like she was slighted. In this context, where Koze and Murphy turn everything into a triumphant, exhilarating soundscape, the slight sounds slightly more welcome, the hardship turned into a driving synth meltdown. Murphy turns her insecurities into ridiculously exciting, scream-along affirmations: “Everything you can’t handle,” she sings, “I’m sure I can!”
On many songs, Murphy expresses a side of herself that’s seldom been put to tape, and leaves the arena a winner. On the heartbreaking “You Knew”, she airs out an old partner, expressing discontent at his unwillingness to take part in a relationship on her terms. As a pop song, it’s brilliant – it’s so rare that one hears a song that tries to genuinely analyse the fractured relations between men and women. But even if it plays a heartfelt card, the song itself is brutal: Murphy speaks and sings without seeking any kind of recompense for herself. Artistically, it’s a bold move – the kind of move her career was made on.
Hit Parade is not just the best album of Murphy’s career, but one of the most invigorating and brilliantly conceived pop albums in recent memory. It is a record that turns a life studying pop music into an odyssey of fractured beats and euphoric hooks, spine-tingling refrains and unforgettable choruses. A masterclass in unfussiness, it is one of the smartest albums that any pop star has made in a long time.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Hitting the spot".
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