“I think self-depreciation is important in music; there is such an art to saying something really serious in a humorous way. I think Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) nailed this, along with people like Morrissey and Elliot Smith. To me, even the tiniest amount of humor in a song can give it more depth. I’m not saying I’m listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic day in and day out. But I think that describing something completely heartbreaking and earth-shattering in a colorful and lighthearted way can occasionally, not always but occasionally, make it way more powerful than all the seriousness in the world.” — Matthew “Murph” Murphy to PopMatters in 2019.
It may not happen to every artist, but should you be successful enough to maintain a songwriting career in some capacity, a switch is eventually flipped. It’s that thing that happens where songwriting stops being a struggle and instead becomes a reflex: a beautiful muscle that has been built up over years of exercise. You turn from an artist into a pure artisan. Making this transition isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the ease of creating new songs may very well come with its own struggles.
Sometimes, turning full professional songwriter leads one to a wealth of rich material (Noel Gallagher penned so many legendary numbers at his creative peak he hoarded the good ones for later albums). Other times, it means an artist might level-out artistically, their lack of challenges to the form leading to songs that trod familiar territory over and over again (think of Death Cab for Cutie’s or Coldplay’s wildly erratic dips in artistic quality). Certain artists may hit creative ruts (think the 1980s records from Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell), only to burst out of it with fresh energy and a fresh perspective some years later. No artist’s path is entirely similar, and as such, some creatives benefit from such professional consistency.
Case in point: Matthew Murphy of the Wombats.
While Murphy has a keen ear for a thundering pop hook, his lyrical woes — of love lost, drugs consumed, and creating goofy madness in between flashes of existential terror — are what has given the Wombats such a distinct personality in the increasingly-shrinking UK rock landscape. A cult act in North America, the group hit their creative apex with 2011’s This Modern Glitch: a technicolor marriage of too-sweet melodies and feel-it-in-your-bones anxiety. While their efforts in the decade that followed were of diminishing returns, 2018’s Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life felt like the band had run out of the magic that made them so utterly quotable and distinctly relatable. There were still takeaways to be sure, but it was clear that Murphy’s songwriting had become rigid, sometimes even stale. He was lapping himself — and he knew it.
Seeking a fresh start, he formed Love Fame Tragedy: a more pop-leaning project that featured spots with peers like Bastille’s Dan Smith, Pixies’ Joey Santiago, and the Killers’ Mark Stoermer. Having dropped two five-song EPs with knowingly-winking titles (i.e., I Don’t Want to Play the Victim, But I’m Really Good at It), it was clear that Murph was ready to move in a new direction, repeating time and time that the Wombats are only on hiatus.
All of this leads to the release of Where I Go, I Want to Leave, his debut full-length under the new moniker. Featuring all ten songs from both EPs and seven new ones (leading to a daunting 17-track playlist), one question hangs over the project in screaming neon: why?
Part of the appeal of side-projects and members going solo is always the curiosity surrounding what they would sound like outside of their “day job” outfit. Sometimes it’s rather apparent why an artist needs to break out and try something on their own, but with Love Fame Tragedy, the line between this outfit and the Wombats is so thin it’s invisible. These are big, whooshing pop numbers with rock beats, beauty-filter keyboards, and that glum sort of comedic anguish that has become Murphy’s trademark. The only difference between this record and the last Wombats studio effort is that Love Fame Tragedy’s offering is better.
Opening with the dramatic, mid-tempo “5150” (itself the California code for involuntary psychiatric commitment), simple synths, and basic beat allows Murphy to paint another self-deprecating story of bad decisions and even worse outcomes. “Sometimes you wanna change, when you know you can’t,” he sings on the chorus, and the pain is palpable. “Just because I fuck up doesn’t mean I’ve got no heart,” he notes later, and it’s clear his entire musical legacy will continue adding on new volumes of his misanthropic trials. Life hurts, and he’s responsible in some way for most of his unhappiness — he’s just so much better at articulating it this time out.
Clocking in at a full 50 minutes, Where I Go, I Want to Leave could have easily used some trim, as a tight 11 or 12 tracks would help in digesting Murphy’s all-encompassing sad-pop aesthetic. Not every EP track needed to be here, and some of the new material (like “B-Team”) could’ve been relegated to B-sides. Yet the striking thing about this collection is just how obvious the highlights are. “My Cheating Heart” has Murphy feeling sympathy for the people that tangle with his non-committal ways, again stating how he can’t change his habits. The guitars, as always, are bright and spiky, but the sentiments still ring true.
In some places, like on the Jack River collaboration “Multiply”, the distorted beats and chugging drum fills make it seem like this is the kind of mainstream pop treat Murphy couldn’t have done in the context of the Wombats — save for the fact that it could’ve easily fit on the band’s last album. In swapping out keyboards for guitars on most tracks, Murphy’s song structures remain the same, meaning the difference between these outfits is close to negligible. By the time he gets to his more guitar-centered rock compositions like “Riding a Wave” (where he describes being a relationship where “She likes it when I’m dark / But not when I’m really, really dark”), the Wombats comparisons are even more pronounced.
Yet whether it be the Wombats, Love Fame Tragedy, or any solo work in the future, Murphy still has a way of finding the best ways to cut, relate, and self-deprecate with his lyrics. The closing number “Brand New Brain” (another EP holdover) captures the small details of a relationship clearly on its way out. “Got your makeup on,” the narrator observes, “you never used to wear makeup.” Quiet phrases and moments like this add to his sharp character portraits, and even if
Where I Go, I Want to Leave isn’t quite a full-bore masterpiece, it still feels like a return to form for Murphy; a fresh set of batteries plugged into his songwriting machine of a brain.
Even though it could use a tad more focus, the real tragedy of Love Fame Tragedy is that more people haven’t heard what a creatively revitalized Matthew Murphy sounds like. He may be a pure pop craftsman at this point, but he’s pointing his talent back towards what made him so great in the first place. About damn time, too.