Album review: Roisin Murphy – Take Her up to Monto

John Preston

Anyone who heard and loved Roisin Murphy’s warm and wily Hairless Toys album from last year will have been overjoyed to learn that a selection of unreleased songs that were recorded during those same sessions have now been given their own home on this, Murphy’s fourth solo album. It’s satisfying though that the nine new songs here bear little resemblance to the overall style and feel of the sleeker Hairless Toys tunes and also a credit to Murph’s artistry and refusal to stay in one place for a second over the point of comfort. Take Her up to Monto is very much an album in its own right and not just – heaven help us – more of the same.

As one might expect with an artist whose self-image is always utterly compelling and integral to her work, Murphy’s Take Her up to Monto has a distinct, conceptual and altogether perplexing campaign. Conceived and directed by Murphy, whose scant regard for stylists is infamous, it sets a very human, anti-fashion ‘real person’ (Murphy in a kind of drag as a construction worker) among contemporary central London landscapes – in particular the capital’s financial district and the newer parts of the London Underground. The imagery is at once larky (Murphy’s face is badly Photoshopped onto every body on the album’s cover) and, especially as seen in the video for ‘Ten Miles High’, alienating and surreal.

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This world of human and man-made architecture also sets up the premise for the musical and lyrical direction Murphy has taken here. Thematically it’s about relationships but in particular that of Murphy and her partner. She has confessed that every song on the album is in someway about Sebastiano Properzi, and is often affectionate and silly, scorning and desperate. Gleaming, wayward electronics with only the occasional treated piano chords and string quartet are Murphy’s soundstage on the entirety of Take Her up to Monto. This is a deeply personal record and the duality of the often plain-speaking lyricism and the accompanying clicks, whooshes, wobbles and clipped synthetics frequently take the everyday into the extraordinary.

‘Mastermind’ is the first of Take Her up to Monto‘s several episodic songs where structures subvert the traditional ‘verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus’ heard in Murphy’s most explicit dalliance with pop on 2007’s Overpowered (although there are certainly pop songs here also, or snippets at least). It clatteringly spins into view with a sung-spoken internal dialogue – ‘rendered defenceless at the slightest hint of suggestion, I’m petrified and I’m fucked if I do and I’m fucked if I don’t’ – before verses soar and syndrums pooh-pooh. The whole thing winds down with buried shamanistic chants. It’s the album’s most club-orientated track and also the most musically nostalgic. Though it’s a perilous challege, only an artist with Murphy’s writing prowess, ability to be this wilfully adventurous and innate understanding could knit so many disparate elements together.

The album’s most romantic and humorous songs come in the album’s first half. ‘Pretty Gardens’ is a reference to Murphy’s pubic hair habits (‘naturally I’m not a blondie, not every hair is died’) and how her own physical insecurities are embraced completely by her partner. Featuring a very lovely and seemingly floating xylophone, it’s a sexy, flirty exposé. Along with the simplicity of beautiful ballad ‘Whatever’, ‘Lip Service’ is Monto‘s most straightforward melody. A kitschy drum machine bossa nova that could appear on several pop icons records (but so far hasn’t), the sublime lilts in the ascending chords as Murphy coos ‘can’t stop bigging you up, telling the world that you’re my world – you are my king!’ are gloriously cheesy and life affirming.

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‘Thoughts Wasted’ is an operatic exploration of how compromise can be, begrudgingly, the key of a healthy relationship. A suite of three, possibly four, parts Murphy has created one of the songs of her career and however many times you hear it there is still something that you will have missed on previous listens. It is both devastating (the sampled cry of ‘I just want to be happy, do you know what I mean?’) and achingly optimistic. Momentum may slip slightly towards the end of the record with a near eight-minute fantasia on insomnia (‘Nervous Sleep’) failing to truly engage but this doesn’t impinge on what’s gone before.

This is not quite the avant garde record you’d expect. There are fantastic melodies that will refuse to leave your head, the clearest of vocals that capture the essence of human fantasy versus the daily grind, and a musicality that is pure and expansive. Songs like the R&B-indebted ‘Romantic Comedy’ initially sound too fractured and angular but that’s because Roisin Murphy just can’t help but take the piss a little. Just wait a bit and the pieces will fall into place in the most delightfully seductive way possible. Take Her up to Monto sees this genuinely sui generis artist at her absolute brazen best, reaching out and connecting you to a world that you always hoped existed.

About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.