There’s a moment very early on in Take Her Up To Monto where Róisín Murphy seems to confess to not living up to her full potential.
As she herself has recently noted, Murphy is a ‘pop star in her own lunch break’, one who busies away when the mood hits, respectful of the parameters of what is expected from those who dabble in pop revelry, though strict limitations are simply of no interest. Her name might prompt some elaboration in the average household and that’s just fine. Murphy is a singular artist and the walls she puts up throughout her fourth record are more compliment than cage.
Perhaps making up for lost time following the eight-year hiatus that preceded last year’s Hairless Toys, Murphy returns with another carefully-constructed maze of avant-garde rhythm and rumination. Where its predecessor went dark, Take Her Up To Monto goes dense. Take ‘Ten Miles High’, for instance. Across almost five-and-a-half minutes it playfully veers in stop-start fashion, kicking in and out here and there whenever it damn well feels like it. All the while, Murphy keeps rich, 80s-tinged synth lines and a smattering of industrial drums at bay as her voice climbs, climbs, climbs. To put it bluntly, the song is an absolute belter and never once does it feel like its author gives a shit about writing to radio restrictions or kowtowing to convention. And it’s the lead single, of course.
Here the disco ball is shattered and the shards fall where they may. Elements of pop, house, jazz and theatrical spoken word combine as Monto eventually reveals itself as a baroque soundtrack of sorts, one worthy of elevating grand works of science fiction and understated horror. On these nine tracks it is abundantly clear that this is Róisín Murphy’s world and she is content for us to merely sprawl about in it, opaque and oppressive as circumstances may sometimes be. “Humans are fucked”, she muses, matter-of-factly, as ‘Thoughts Wasted’ – another layered wander of disparate frequencies that ultimately dance as one - winds down. Such grim tidings are difficult to argue against especially when presented as just another cog in a machine most hypnotic.
Of course, there is every chance that those initial spells of doubt on ‘Mastermind’ are less self-reflection and more the inhabiting of a character. That’s part of what makes Murphy tick; the mystery, the imagery, the nods to everything from Italian literature to the revered music of her homeland, the complete lack of interest in writing more straightforward affairs. She is rarely obvious, never transparent and entirely impossible to pin down. Not every artist can get away with that and still register as compelling, but then not everyone can casually drop a vaudeville ode to the vagina that doubles as a proud declaration of insecurity before moving on because there are other exclamation marks to (dis)quietly attend to. Even something like ‘Lip Service’, awash with sunny holiday resort cadence, has teeth.
Monto occasionally overwhelms as its leading light pivots. Patience is rather vital as the album expands and Murphy continues to contemplate. There’s no padding here, but like any good trip into an intriguing mind you may emerge from the swell a touch dizzy. On that score, ‘Sitting and Counting’ makes for note-perfect end credits. We ought to be unsettled, though. That’s the point. Long past pop not being a dirty word; time now to embrace gloss-coated complexity.
8Dave Hanratty's Score