There’s an episode of What’s In My Bag? — a collection of videos where famous musicians are spotted in an Amoeba Music store and asked about what they’re buying — where Peter Murphy had a copy of Metallica’s S&M at the top of his pile. At least I think it’s S&M. “My son has turned me on to Metallica. I always liked them anyway. But they’re not a metal band, they’re just a brilliant band,” Murphy says matter-of-factly. And whether or not the former Bauhaus/Dali’s Car vocalist and producer/Killing Joke bassist Martin “Youth” Glover had James Hetfield and company in mind while working on the ferocious Lion, the taste in this den is indeed a metallic one. Ninth, Murphy’s previous solo album, held tight to the singer’s tried-and-darkly-true formula of matching his deep Bowie warble with a cold, disaffected approach from the band. Lion is a kitchen sink album, in that everything has been thrown at it. Murphy himself has likened it to the Beatles’ self-titled White Album. And while that’s kind of absurd on an as-is level, it’s not so out-there in sentiment. Absurdity, after all, is one of the things for which we turn to Peter Murphy.
Murphy and Glover’s urge to play by different rules is palatable just within track one. A swell of the synth, a dirge-like tempo, and a circular vocal hook that doesn’t exactly say “come on in, the water’s fine” all make up Lion‘s first single, “Hang Up”. The guitars don’t soar so much as they go crunch. Actually, that’s the six-string approach through most of Lion. Whether it’s a skin tight dance number (“Low Tar Stars”), a scary waltz (“Ghosts of Shokan Lake”), a grandiose midtempo centerpiece (“Compression”), or just nice, thick slices of gothic rock (“Eliza”, “Holy Clown”, “I Am My Own Name”), Murphy’s penchant for industrial metal serves as a riding rail for well over half of the album. After all, if you were to add together all of the musical ground covered by Bauhaus and Killing Joke, it’s not a stretch to consider that Glover and Murphy can piece together a sound that is heavy, menacing, and best of all, not a dramatic parody of itself.
When the menacing guitars take a back seat, the rest of the album plays just as heavily. “I’m on Your Side” and “The Rose” are noticeable, at first, on the merit of their slower tempos and not developing into auditory storms. That’s not to say that they don’t come close. “I’m on Your Side” is, from its opening seconds, as big as the sky. Murphy milks the chorus for all that it’s worth, stretching his throaty cry over the title. “The Rose” is a gothic rock spin on the power ballad, devoid of both cheese and irony: “My love is for the rose / I bow to her.” On the lyrical front, Murphy still resides in the most comfortable for the past 35 years or so — in impressionistic, non-linear territory: “Selling fake religion…I get you close to a star.” “Compression, it is my lesson.” “Find your holy clown!” “I like that bitter pill / That killer instinct still.” “My voice replies / The plaintive wailing / But not at you, she has faded in a day.” Even when a song about a ghost sports such a simple refrain like “Swimming in the sea / Looking for the water,” Murphy can’t help but slip in a verse like this: “A peripheral nomad shake / The sur-ratio of one to three / A piece of Middle East / Smaller than a bloody ant.” Untangling such stream of consciousness would be like letting the 12-year-old me stare at a Beggars Banquet sleeve while trying to guess what a band sounds like just by looking at the covers of Mask and Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape.
When standing back to survey Peter Murphy’s solo discography, Lion is the one with the true roar. We seem to be long past the point where over-the-hill musicians make it 35 years into their career drained of their vitality. Lion is overflowing with vitality, crunch, volume, emoting, and everything that makes Peter Murphy himself. It’s nice when things change. It’s also nice when an enigma refuses to do so. And it’s pretty great when the two approaches collide.