#2733 – Róisín Murphy – Ruby Blue
(CD, 2005) (Discogs tracklisting)
Róisín Murphy’s third album, Hairless Toys – her first in eight years – was one of my absolute favourites of 2015. Fluid, elegant and beguiling (and fully deserving of its Mercury Prize nomination, which makes a nice change), it sported the most consistently strong songwriting of her post-Moloko solo career.
I hadn’t expected to fall for it so hard. In my mind, Murphy was one of those doughty troupers of leftfield pop: always worthy of respect, but never quite in the top drawer either. I had forgotten that I owned her first two albums, and so was surprised, when trawling through my old blog archives (which I’m slowly transferring to this site, in spare moments), to find that Ruby Blue, her debut solo release, had reached the dizzy heights of Number 14 in my Albums of 2005 countdown.
My pulse wasn’t exactly quickened when scanning the liner notes, and finding that this was a collaboration with Matthew Herbert; he and Murphy co-wrote and co-produced all twelve tracks. I used to find Herbert’s approach an interesting one – he set himself rigorous guidelines for music-making, including a ban on drum machines, presets and samples of other artists’ work – but for me, the results rarely seemed to live up to the ideals.
Although it went Top Ten in Belgium, Ruby Blue sold poorly elsewhere, compared to the sustained commercial success that Murphy had enjoyed with Moloko. It’s easy to understand why. Making no concessions to the expectations of daytime radio playlist committees, it marks a determined shift away from pop, and the adoption of a more overtly experimental approach, in terms of songwriting, arrangement and production.
Opening with one of its most obtuse, arid and melodically tricky tracks, “Leaving The City”, the album lays down its gauntlet straight away. But by the third track, “Night Of The Dancing Flame”, it starts to ease up, adding Twenties Flapper Jazz flavours that lighten the mood. This is a recurring stylistic theme, conveyed by a three-piece brass section that features on almost every song.
“Through Time” is gently yearning, an extended swoon whose melodic sweetness is undercut by blasts of static noise in the coda. “Sow Into You” was a doomed choice of single; perhaps it should have been “Dear Diary” instead, with its funky horns and more groove-based feel. Meanwhile, in a fleeting throwback to Moloko days, “If We’re In Love”, the other single, boasts Ruby Blue‘s sole conventional pop refrain. It’s the only passage on the album which I could sing back to you now.
The songwriting throughout is recognisably from the same hand that penned Hairless Toys, which leads me to assume that Murphy supplied the bare-bone compositions, while Herbert worked more on the arrangements. Lyrically, it feels as if she’s describing a state of uncertain flux, as a relationship draws to an end; the sentiments are open-ended and self-questioning. Production-wise, there’s a fidgety quality, and a novel approach to sonic design: typically for Herbert, a range of everyday objects are sampled, lending the electronics a more organic, less artificial tone.
The penultimate track, reduced to a 52-second instrumental “prelude” on the CD, has been front-sliced from a longer composition, whose lyrics are printed in full in the booklet – but you’d have had to wait for the release of “Sow Into You” as a single, four months later, to hear the full song. Was this teaser marketing, or did Murphy decide the song wasn’t up to scratch? Whatever the reason, it sets a false trail for the final track, “The Closing Of The Doors”, which strips away all the clutter, leaving a steady Bacharach piano and an intermittent, elegiac flugel horn to carry Murphy’s understated balladeering.
You can’t really do this record full justice, on the basis of two plays after a ten year gap. There’s just too much to digest. And so, for the first time since this series began, I won’t be putting this one straight back on the shelf. I had underestimated it, and now I want to take the time to get properly re-acquainted.