This essay on Roisin Murphy The Artist was written by K-Punk from UK Fact Magazine. It's a must-read for any Roisin devotee.
Roisin Murphy is pop's exiled princess of glam. She represents a confection – of disco and art, of sensuousness and intelligence, of sumptuous superficiality and existential anxiety - that once seemed inevitable, but which has now become all but impossible. Where pop culture was once practically synonymous with glam impulse, now it is almost uniformly hostile to it.
It would be a profound mistake to confuse glamour with sex. If sex is ubiquitous and compulsory, glamour is now subtly forbidden. The word 'glamour' originally connoted a witchy power women exercised over men. Whereas the sex object reassures and flatters the lad's gaze it is constituted for, the glamorous object confuses, entrances and captivates. Sex - in all its apparent directness, in all its supposed lack of concealment - is a way of warding off glamour’s ambivalence by assigning determinate meaning ('ah, it's all about that!') to the 'superficial abysses' of the object.
It is not only indie's performance of earnest ingenuousness that rejects the allure of clothes and cosmetics. The continuing total domination of sportswear – encouraged both by the 'equity culture' of loose fit anti-fashion put in place by acid house in the late Eighties, and by hip-hop's in-equity culture of conspicuous bling – means that 00s pop culture is dominated by a kind of morose maleness, which – depressive and depressing - is profoundly suspicious of the power of image.
That quotidian functionalism is today's equivalent of the agrarian organicism from which Seventies glam revolted into style. Glam repudiated hippie's 'nature' in the name of artifice; disdained its fugged, bleary vision of equality for an aristocratic insistence upon hierarchy; rejected its unscrubbed beardiness in order to cultivate Image. But glam was not a repudiation of egalitarianism per se so much as a rejection of a certain rendition of what equality was supposed to mean. The demand in glam was for a kind of aristocratic proletarianism. The art-pop of Roxy Music, Grace Jones and the New Romantics emerged out of a triangulation of art, pop and fashion. Pop allowed the mass distribution of art; fashion was the invasion of art into everyday life. The production of oneself as an object, a pure surface, was a work of art and artifice. Art pop was also about an unlearning of rock’s instrumentation and structure and a cultivation of a romance with the synthesizer and the dancefloor. The wooing of the dancefloor was reciprocated by disco: Chic's ambition was to be the 'black Roxy Music'.
Ever since she began her career with Moloko, Roisin Murphy, with her love of dressing up and disco, has been one of current pop's few points of connections with this glam discontinuum. Moloko's name – which, famously, was a reference to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, whose montage of violence, fashion and electronic music had an impact on Seventies glam pop too great to begin to calculate -indicated the group's affinities. But, in the beginning, Moloko's jazzy trip-hop act did not seem especially propitious, and it was only with Boris Dlugosch' shimmering remix of Sing it Back in 1999 that a seductive sound concept emerged out of an inchoate tangle of good intentions.
Sing it Back was a lustrous paean to the siren power of song itself, a vision of rhapsody as romance, and romance as rhapsody; it was about the allure of supplication, subordination and surrender, the appeal of being 'a zombie' under the total power of the Other. The Time is Now, from 2000's Things to Make and Do, its disco strings simulating the lover's urgency, was similarly about 'giving up oneself' to love, its injunction to 'make the moment last' shadowed by an awareness of the butterfly-wing fragility of romance's first flush. The brutalist Indigo was fascinatingly cryptic, a moment of weird pop made more mysterious by its Hammer Horror country house-set video in which a catatonic Murphy played a meat puppet at the centre of a bizarre occult summoning ritual.
2003's Statues saw Moloko's sound becoming more sleek, slinky and machine-like. The string-driven Familiar Feeling, about love as fatality and uncanny repetition, was a kind of sequel to The Time is Now, another treatment of the theme of love and temporality. Forever More approached this theme, not from the point of view of the bliss-drunk lover, but from the perspective of a romance-parched abject on the look out for 'someone to love'. If Sing it Back, The Time is Now and Familiar Feelings were about dilating new love's evanescence, Forever More, with its massive house bass throb, was about the dejected and rejected lover's sense that desolation would never end.
It always seemed that the best aspects of Moloko were Murphy's doing, so when the group fragmented after Statues, there was every reason to believe that her glam pop adventures would continue. Her debut solo album, Ruby Blue was a luxuriant fusion of Murphy's sensibility with that of avant-jazz producer Matthew Herbert. Herbert's pointillistic jazz provided a cubist cabaret backing for Murphy's modern torch songs. The album seemed to come from an alternative history in which rock played little part and Weimar Berlin decadence was the dominant mode of popular culture.
If Ruby Blue was a gloriously avant-garde take on Murphy's jazz/pop side, but this year's Overpowered is a return to disco. The album draws upon the whole 'Discontinuum': Moroder-esque pulses, Anita Ward-style syndrums, DAF-like electro bass, house's stately sensuality and acid's looping machine-plateaus. The title track, one of the singles of the summer, saw Murphy trying to fathom love's neurological destabilization, its overwhelming of the brain's capacity to think, whilst being debilitated by its intoxicating condition. The quietly gorgeous Footprints, its syndrums shimmering like stars at midnight, once again casts Murphy in the familiar role of 'a junkie for love'.
Overpowered – which Murphy wrote and co-produced with a number of collaborators – shows that Murphy has lost none of her ability to turn out addictive pop songs with a lovely synthetic sheen. And as her promotional appearances for the album have amply demonstrated, age has not withered any of Murphy's enthusiasm for preposterous costume and erotic masquerade. Perhaps only Gwen Stefani continues to follow glam pop's imperatives towards excessive and absurd self-decoration with the same dedication. But Stefani has yet to produce a song as memorable as Overpowered, The Time is Now or Sing it Back.