For about ten years, Róisín Murphy worked with musician Mark Brydon as the electropop duo Moloko, releasing a batch of well-received albums, their career peaking with the hit single “The Time Is Now” that went all the way to number two on the UK pop charts in 2000. After the 2003 record Statues, the duo went their separate ways. Murphy embarked on an idiosyncratic and creative solo career, releasing a solo debut in 2005, Ruby Blue, and creating a unique and distinctive oeuvre comprising some brilliant and innovative dance music.
On her latest album, Hit Parade, Murphy takes her sound – a swirling cacophony of electropop, synthpop, and nu-disco – and looks to soul to elevate her music. As with her best work, there are some great moments on the record, but overall, Hit Parade is a bit inconsistent; its title is false advertising. It’s a frustratingly uneven album, with just enough genius to make the mediocrity on some tracks stand out.
The first single, “CooCool”, indicates why Hit Parade isn’t an unqualified success. It takes on some of the sounds of 1970s soul and gives them a modern electropop sheen, but her vocals aren’t distinct enough to elevate this tune from just generic radio-friendly pop music circa 2020. The singer-songwriter earns points for doing something a little different than what longtime fans would expect from her, but “CooCool” meanders and sputters. The follow-up single, “The Universe”, strives for a summery, sunny breeziness, but like “CooCool”, it struggles to hold the listener’s interest. “The House” is another game that tries to marry Murphy’s sound to more urban-based pop music.
Conversely, “Fader” is fantastic. It’s a brilliant pastiche of pop and 1970s-era soul. It captures the bygone era of sun-dappled, mid-tempo soul-pop ballads perfectly. Murphy’s singing takes on an affected soul chanteuse tone and sounds engaging and thrilling. The single samples Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ “Window Shopping” and does so wonderfully. Murphy and her collaborator, DJ Koze, take the original, soulful scorcher defined by a crushing pain and use the tune to buttress the deliriously engaging tune.
In fact, “Fader” kicks off a string of excellent songs that last four tracks. After the retro-soul of “Fader”, Murphy embraces dazzling 1970s disco for the exhilarating “Free Will”, which is at once nostalgic and modern-sounding. But best of all is Murphy’s ascent into house music with the stylish, arch pair “You Knew” and “Can’t Replicate”. “You Knew” is struts with stabs of icy synths that belay the angst and urgency of the lyrics.
“Can’t Replicate” is a fabulous, 1990-style house-pop cut that has echoes of Madonna’s “Vogue” and Björk’s “Big Time Sensuality”. It sounds flamboyant and queer and strange, like what would happen if drag balls took place in outer space. Murphy’s vocals are smeared atop mincing beats and pounding keyboards. “Can’t Replicate” isn’t merely an homage to house-pop but a legitimate entry in the genre and hints at the rich but ultimately unfulfilled potential of Hit Parade.