Róisín Murphy Take Her Up To Monto

[Play It Again Sam; 2016]

Styles: synth pop, house, drag,
Others: Bilal, The Knife, Gorillaz, Jenny Hval,

“In the pageants they have these different categories for different types of drag. And one of the major types would be realness, and within that they’ll have “executive realness” — you get away with looking like a real business man. Or “college realness,” just looking like a real college kid when you’re not, when you are really flamboyant. It’s a very observational sort of performance. It’s just fascinating, that you can come from this very flamboyant place and adopt mainstream ideas. It’s a very subversive idea.
– Róisín Murphy in an interview with Queerty

Take Her Up To Monto shows Róisín Murphy in a drier style than audiences have received her thus far. Arising from the same five weeks of writing and recording with collaborator Eddie Stevens that produced her previous, slicker album Hairless Toys, Take Her Up To Monto continues the duo’s exploration of extended, complex song forms, presenting a coarser and more evasive embodiment of Murphy’s a-generic dance-pop spirit. Accompanied by the glamour-less neon safety uniform on its cover, Take Her Up To Monto searches further territory in the practice of understated performances of normativity, walking the familiar tightrope between hipness and mainstream appeal, sincerity and subversion, appropriation and service.

Murphy’s self-directed video for the album’s second single “Ten Miles High” lends a visual analogy to her experimentation, taking the brutalist and industrial concrete architecture of England and folding it over itself with a simple mirroring effect, allowing repetitious structural patterns to approach their limits and fall apart. All the while, Murphy struts around in work uniforms, subject as well to her own directorial distortions. From moment to moment on Take Her Up To Monto, musical parallels to these subjections are echoed through genre play and extreme nakedness in instrumentation. A focus on “realness” and normality is rehearsed, manipulated, and processed to varying degrees as the album unfolds.

We first confront Murphy’s tucked-away flamboyance through the album’s skeletal arrangements: looping structures do not build so much as they change; new synths that are constantly introduced take over the texture as they are, and in their dryness do not blend or congeal with the overall mix but are present in their raw materiality. Remembering that these recordings came to fruition in the same sessions as the warm and lively Hairless Toys, their mechanically bare presence is notable. The self-reflexive “Pretty Gardens” is a swing-tinged statement about the body’s imperfections, a drawing of attention to the hairs on the body that have not been bleached. Murphy smokily warns, “Naturally, I’m not a blondie/ Not every hair is dyed.” Full of remorse and gratitude, Murphy continues, “Any lingering doubt about your love is just irrelevant now/ At the worst of my worst you didn’t leave me, are all my imperfections allowed?/ You’re a fool to always forgive me, and see the good inside/ It’s cruel to make you feel guilty, when I let my pretty garden go wild.” These heartbreaking admissions to a lover conveniently double as a preemptive note to listeners, as they follow the artist into the further experimentation that they (as a fanbase) have granted her.

Fifteen expansive minutes into the album, Murphy closes its third song, “Thoughts Wasted” — an unfolding, cinematic excursion — with a harsh spoken word lament for humanity (“Unforgivable, there’s no way to be good/ There are simply many ways to be more or less bad… Humans are fucked, a smack of jelly fish”). The ambience has been tense and enrapturing thus far until “Lip Service,” a matter-of-fact bossa nova love song, is delivered, the most disruptive element of which is a slightly anxious noodling jazz guitar that fills its spaces melodically. “Lip Service” lifts Take Her Up To Monto out of its dramatic density, and in its undisturbed aloofness, the song performs the subversively non-subverted realness that Murphy admires.

“Ten Miles High” is an ode to ascension and the self-transcendence provided by flight. It presents a sort of paradoxical fantasy of escape that relies upon the alienation of distance brought forth from the vantage point of “a brave new world out in the starry skies”: the sensation of one seeing oneself from outside and feeling like never going back. The album climaxes with “Romantic Comedy” — a likely single with a pummeling drum machine, crawling bass, and fierce energy — in which the self is re-inhabited and forced into a sort of hysteria, a feedback system of simultaneous laughter and disgust: “Cupid is a comedian leaving me here bleeding, leaving me bleeding to death/ Hoping that the hilarity activates a gravity bringing me back down to Earth.” After such an implosion, “Nervous Sleep” finds that the playful performativity has gone a touch too far. Musically open and amorphous, hallucinatory, it begins, “We’re lost/ Our fuel is very low/ And yet she keeps asking if/ I Love her so.” Murphy’s voice emerges from different spaces in the mix; she is now multiple and conversing with her doubles: “‘What about me?’/ What about you?/ ‘What about me?’/ She seemed weak / ‘I’m a person too.’/ I’m scared that I haven’t seen another person on this road in days.”

Identity play has drawn out a split and proved unsustainable. The privileged radicality of performed realness — restrained extravagance — is self-distorting; the drag begins to wear its inhabitant until it forces a break; Murphy’s flamboyant decadence lashes out. For all the admiration and absorption of realness, Take Her Up To Monto is wholly surreal, enjoyable nonetheless.

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