Peter Murphy’s new double disc, aLive Justforlove, couldn’t have a more appropriate title. Recorded late last year at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles and comprising material from several stages of his career, aLive reads like a love letter to Murphy’s longtime fans. Given the length and nature of his career, it’s not surprising what a faithful and fervid bunch those fans are. Murphy began (and is still best known) as the frontman for Bauhaus, a group that was, as its name implies, as much about visuals as music. The band pioneered the Goth movement with a blend of elegance and horror-show theatricality, and Murphy, with his pale skin, thin frame, and high, sunken cheekbones, was the perfect Prince of Darkness. Although his sex appeal was based on an androgynous visual image, there has never been anything effeminate about his voice, which is, to borrow the title of his biggest-selling album, deep.
Back in the 1980s, when the term “alternative music” still meant something, Murphy was very much an alternative — one of the few brooding, sensitive male artists in a sea of metal bands whose names began with “W”. To be sure, not many other artists at the time were writing songs with sublime titles like “Socrates the Python”. With the release of his first two solo albums, Should the World Fail to Fall Apart (1985) and Love Hysteria (1988), Murphy enjoyed a brand of “success in obscurity” that, in these times of huge record-label conglomerates, hardly seems possible anymore. He was not well known in the mainstream, but he got some airplay on MTV’s alternative music shows and presumably sold enough records to keep his record label happy. That changed in 1990, when “Cuts You Up”, a single from his third album, Deep, became a surprise hit. As with most artists who are suddenly and unexpectedly faced with the challenge of making a follow-up to a hit album, Murphy suffered a bit of a (very belated) sophomore slump with 1992’s Holy Smoke. By the time Cascade came along in 1995, the mainstream was no longer listening.
Murphy remained quiet for a few years after Cascade (with the exception of a reunion tour with Bauhaus), and ended his relationship with Beggars Banquet with the best-of package Wild Birds in 2000. Then, without label support or new material to promote, Murphy hit the road. ALive Justforlove captures the stripped-down sound Murphy presented to fans. With just two musicians, Hugh Marsh (electric violin) and Porno for Pyros’ Peter DiStefano (guitar), Murphy gives measured, yet emotive versions of some of the best material from his solo albums, plus surprises like Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender”. The simplified instrumentation on aLive brings Murphy’s impressive voice to the forefront, proving once more that his commanding croon was as integral a part of Bauhaus’ success as his bandmates’ spooky, dissonant musical textures.
As would be expected, the excellent “All Night Long”, “Indigo Eyes”, and “Cuts You Up” are included, as well as strong later-era tracks like “Subway”. More surprisingly, Murphy revisits the Love Hysteria tracks “My Last Two Weeks” and “Time Has Got Nothing to Do with It”, and brings out Bauhaus bandmate David J. for the group’s “Who Killed Mr. Moonlight” and “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything”. On the new “Cool Cool Breeze”, which he presents a cappella, Murphy proves he’s lost little of his vocal prowess or his sweeping romanticism, as heard in lines like, “Your eyes look like emeralds / With you I’m in no danger”.
No longer engaged in a major-label deal and freed from the creative pressures of being in the public eye, Murphy is perhaps in a better position now to make music on his own terms than he has been in over a decade. Only time will tell if he is gearing up for a creative rebirth, but for now aLive provides a clear reminder of his potential and a grand summation of his accomplishments so far.