There are hundreds of artists out there like Roisin Murphy, pop acts too arty to really be pop. There might be a moment where their weirdness matched up with what was going on in the mainstream, but their best work comes much later when they’ve fallen into that widest of labels, the ‘cult artist’. Sparks were probably the first, and following Roísín artists like Marina and the Diamonds, Peaches and the band formerly known as New Young Pony Club have taken on the mantle.
So the Mercury nomination for Murphy’s Hairless Toys is representative of recognition for all of these artists. Proper pop is rarely recognised at the Mercuries, and when it is you usually get a token nomination for an in vogue act (NYPC got one in 2007, for example). They never get nominated for this later weirder work. Hopefully, though doubtfully, this is the beginning of better recognition for cult pop.
Hairless Toys is nothing if not a sophisticated record. Whereas the weirdness of Roísín’s earlier work as a solo artist or in Moloko sometimes got in the way of engaging with it, Hairless Toys is much cleverer in its strangeness. The album is the sound of Murphy whispering in your ear so seductively that it is easy to forget how odd her songs are. Unputdownable, for example, compares a lover to a good book, all over a slow house beat. The beats in general do a great job of lulling you into a false sense of security that belies the weird moments and instruments being used.
The album’s best moments, Exploitation, Evil Eye and Uninvited Guest transcend this lulling and turn into worlds of their own, somewhere between house, pop, triphop and the slower moments in the Moloko discography. At its worst, however, the songs have a tendency to fade into the background. At the slower tempos, and for the first few listens it treads very close to dinner party music, but then slowly its intricacies unravel themselves and songs like the title track ooze into your soul like caramel. Even when it feels like dinner party music, it is very good, sophisticated dinner party music (closer to Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ than Demis Roussos).
It’s certainly a good album, both as a collection of songs and as a complete product, but one gets the impression that this got a nomination because it was less pop than her previous work, with none of the exuberant pop of her 2007 album Overpowered or on Moloko’s Things to Make and Do. Exploitation reaches those heights, but nothing else here can match songs like ‘Let Me Know’ or ‘Familiar Feeling’ from those albums. It also pales in comparison to her stunning run of dance and disco singles like the amazing Simulation, which certainly deserves an award inventing just to honour it.
Until, that point, Hairless Toys will do as a winner. It will probably never happen, but maybe that is for the best, keeping Murphy as a secret club only discerning pop fans are members of.