Róisín Murphy: Hit Parade review – a masterful album with an ugly stain

Even before the events of the last fortnight, Róisín Murphy’s sixth album teetered on the edge of danger. Preoccupied with unrequited desire, Hit Parade lurches recklessly between soulful rhapsodies about getting what you want and shadowy techno tracing the allure of self-sabotage, and innately understands that these apparently conflicting states are two sides of exactly the same coin. They’re united further by Murphy’s cosmic worldview, which perceives desire as a kind of fate, and the playfulness of producer DJ Koze, AKA Stefan Kozalla, who lavishes the record with iridescent detail, as if zooming in on dew drops in the fur of a golden labrador or delighting in the twitching aliveness of a luscious jungle.

Hit Parade has been a very long time coming: it was made over six years, mostly remotely, and finished two years ago. Murphy has said that she would send her parts to the German producer, who would twist them to his whimsical but perfectionist ear, often sending back total surprise reinventions of songs they had already worked on intensively: flipping country soul to skeletal post-dubstep, unexpectedly splicing in voicemails from Murphy and clips from her goofy in-character bits on TikTok. In every sense, textual and meta, Hit Parade considers what the truest expression of a feeling might be.

The artwork for Hit Parade
The artwork for Hit Parade

In the last two weeks, the sincerity of that expression has become compromised for many fans. A screenshot of Murphy decrying puberty blockers as “big pharma laughing all the way to the bank”, describing transgender children as “mixed-up kids” and characterising “Terf” as a misogynist slur in a Facebook comment was circulated online. (A study showed that young trans people who can access puberty blockers experience a decrease in depression and a 73% reduction in the risk of suicide; they have also long been used to stall precocious puberty in cisgender children. As of June, the NHS has paused their availability to young people outside of exceptional circumstances and for research studies.) Murphy’s comments dismayed her vast LGBTQ+ fanbase, who she has embraced by performing at queer events such as Homobloc, NYC Downlow and Mighty Hoopla and aligning herself with drag culture. When she finally commented a week later, notably she didn’t apologise for her original assertion, only the division she had sowed, and claimed she had never targeted any particular demographic. (Also perhaps telling: Murphy has been her own manager for more than two years.) Naturally, the division only worsened, with fans who felt betrayed cancelling their album preorders, and those with an interest in amplifying Murphy’s original views, as well as anti-cancel culture bandwagoners, making the hashtag #IStandWithRoisinMurphy trend on Twitter.

Ninja Tune ceased promoting the record and according to one newspaper report, will donate all profits from its sale to charities that work to combat transphobia. (The label declined multiple requests to confirm this to the Guardian, and has not released a statement on the matter.) It is an ignominious ending for one of the year’s most anticipated albums, one that was already being talked about in rarefied terms by critics – part of the tiny, privileged industry contingent who were able to cultivate a relationship with Hit Parade free from this association. I first heard it in February and had been playing it obsessively all year, which makes writing this review a challenge on several levels: what I hear will never be what the general public hears now that the album is emerging into the world as a kind of collateral damage. I totally disagree with Murphy’s views and understand why for many fans, particularly queer fans, this album is DOA, yet it would be a reach to frame Hit Parade through those comments – save, perhaps, for how they jar against her lyrical theme of how delirious it feels to be seen for who you truly are, to reveal your truest self to another person, a desire any of her queer and trans listeners would know intimately. You’d have to hope that Murphy considers that a universal pleasure, given how sublimely she and Koze render it on a really masterful album.

Róisín Murphy: Fader – video

Partially that’s down to Koze’s gorgeously warped lens: Hit Parade constitutes his best ever full-length LP. His humour is there, in the teeth-brushing samples that pan through the soulful rush of CooCool; in his fearless embrace of cheese in Free Will, which starts with a philosophical statement about autonomy that brings to mind his classic XTC, and shifts from beatific lounge to what could be the theme tune to a Balearic soap opera then to twinkling house. The detail is immaculate, an endlessly renewing seam of novelty and delight imbued in the very fabric of every song: the sort of piercing white light that surreptitiously sears through the pixellated blasts of Two Ways; the way the strings that end the juddering, recriminatory Hurtz So Bad seem played less by a bow than a fader; how the balmy, squirmy guitar and synth noodling away at the end of a song actually called Fader feel as if they’ve gone threadbare with love. Koze is clearly a guy who plays with his food, and he scales and squeezes these songs in a way that makes them as unpredictable as the desire Murphy is hounding down within them. “He plays me like a geeee-tar,” she sings on Hurtz So Bad, and Koze constricts her voice to a tense, frenzied vibration.

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The sublimity is also unmistakably down to Murphy’s painfully accurate reflection of the phantom intimacy that is unrequited or even forbidden infatuation: the power and powerlessness, the whiplash of obsession and rejection. Hit Parade starts with a dare, the dripping, dubbed-out shudder of What Not to Do, in which Murphy posits: “Whether you want it / Or you don’t / Whether we get on it / Or we don’t”, her voice a slackened, licentious sneer. Her proposition turns to delusion, convinced that only this other person could ever know her on the breathless, writhing techno of Can’t Replicate, one of the more straightforward songs here; imagining their union as something written in the stars in CooCool and The Universe.

And Murphy puts in the headiest performance of her life, revealing dimensions far beyond the stentorian disco maven of 2020’s Róisín Machine: she is ecstatically available on Fader as she admits “I lay eggs every single time I think of you”, harsh with self-loathing on Hurtz So Bad, a panicked blurt on The House, a doomed portrait of intimacy. There’s startling acceptance on the twinkling scrape of Eureka, about begging a doctor to cut this pain out of her; the sharpest bitterness on You Knew, a masterpiece of arid, throbbing, angry, forlorn dub-techno in which Murphy castigates the object of her desires for misleading her.

Her recriminations spill out in fast flurries, the speed eventually breaking them apart, like bits of a rocket falling off as it penetrates the atmosphere; Koze bounces her voice like a ball, letting it skid and skitter. The song is a cold burn, the anguished realisation that you’ve imagined yourself into a fantasy so intensely that you feel cheated of a reality that you never had in the first place. That sense of shattered illusions hits especially hard this week.

The Guardian