[30 May 2013]
If Murphy’s law is a real contender as some kind of truth as to the way life goes—that anything which can possibly go wrong, will go wrong—then it’s no wonder Elliott Murphy is a worried man.
It Takes a Worried Man is something like Murphy’s twenty-second studio album. Starting out in the ‘70s on major labels and one of the fêted “New Dylans”, over a 40-year career he’s worked with big shots like Springsteen, Lou Reed, Jerry Harrison, Billy Joel, Iain Matthews and Phil Collins. Yet despite critical acclaim, he’s somehow not become one of the big shots himself. Does this explain the title of his latest album, and is he jinxed as a result of sharing his surname with that pessimist’s maxim?
The answer to both is no. It Takes a Worried Man, despite the title song, is a characteristically optimistic and upbeat collection of American rock and roll, and the sound of success not failure. Murphy turns out to be “a mystical believer an agnostic with a cause”, even though “it’s a long way back to 1972” (“Day For Night”).
That’s not to say there aren’t a few characters on the album who may be struggling with the rest of us sinners. Mister Jackson on “Little Big Man” has to do his thing to “bring home the bacon”, but the song remains focussed on the positive; the last Ramone flickers in and out of view with a sharp leather jacket, and these days he has a Hollywood tan. We’re told our fate may be decided, and love may be a tired idea, but it’s making a fast comeback.
Still, there’s heartbreak and someone has to be told to stop crying on “Then You Start Crying”—“life is beautiful but the world can be hell.” More than anything else, the world seems dramatic—there’s the cinematographic production of “I Am Empty” (featuring a startling, holy Hallelujah vocal by Patti Scialfa and a scorching guitar solo from Olivier Durand) and the operatics of “He’s Gone”, reminiscent of a big, Roy Orbison classic: “Well love’s a game / You play it like a fool / And you show your cards / Throw away the rules.”
It Takes a Worried Man is a big album in other ways, in that it has a generosity of spirit and humour. “Angeline” is a bright pop song with chiming guitar and thundering drums dealing with the fear of being in a relationship, only knowing “there’s a chance we’ll come out ahead / there’s still a chance we’ll land on our feet here / with our illusions buried and dead.” Angeline herself is a charmer, telling us that “as everybody gets older / they get more kinky in their own way”; although Murphy is perhaps more quirky than kinky, maybe that dreaded law needs to be re-written? As the song closes out, the listener anticipates that the singer should push up into falsetto. Murphy makes us wait, and wait some more, and then nails it.
So how come Murphy hasn’t had the success that so many of his followers think he should have had? Murphy suggests in “Even Steven” that it’s all relative, and there can be more to life than just rock music: “Success is such a dirty word – and it changes meaning all the time / and what I have that I know is mine is not the same as what I wanted when I was 29.” He goes on to declare that “failing rock stars” are not his heroes. It’s a striking statement coming from a rock musician.
Paradoxically, the new economic model of musicians making more money from touring than record sales may mean more records are put out – because a singer constantly on the road needs new songs. “The Eternal Highway” encapsulates a carefree life away from home with a sing-a-long chorus, just as the ‘70s horns on “Little Bit More” evoke a laid-back form of domesticity.
A final explanation of how Murphy continues down the road without huge commercial success despite having the chops and no hang-ups, is contained in “Murphyland”, an anthemic call to arms for his loyal and steady fan base. As Murphy recalls dandies, dudes and glam stars, you can feel the genuine concern that Murphy has for friendship, and his niche community of followers – “and it’s blood for blood and we don’t look back /‘cause Murphyland is where we want to be”. Murphy’s son, Gaspard (who has his own thing going on through French indie band, Duplex), produced the album and it seems likely that this helped to provide a certain frisson of energy and optimism in the studio; it’s chaotic but fun, as Murphy yelps “and everything that can go right well you know it will / Murphy’s law it’s got no jurisdiction here”. You better believe it, or just walk away.