Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Peter Murphy in the 21st Century

Peter Murphy is an enigmatic personality who is tough to pin down. The first two decades of his career form a somewhat linear path of development, but in the 21st century, his activity has been varied and unpredictable. Some of the resulting work is forgettable, but other parts are all too easily overlooked. This article aims to cover the breadth of this output and evaluate each release's relative merits.

After co-founding and departing Bauhaus and Dali's Car, Murphy spent the rest of the 80s making keyboard-driven alternative and post-punk music with a mystical bent and a tendency for the grandiose. In the 90s, he gradually steered towards a more haunting, expansive, and electronic sound. When Bauhaus reunited for a tour in 1998, they recorded two songs (a cover of Dead Can Dance's "Severance" and new composition "The Dog's a Vapour") that fit well into this trend. After the reunion fell apart, Murphy released the perfunctory compilation Wild Birds (2000) and the excellent live album Alive Just for Love (2001).

At that point, it seemed that Murphy was at a crossroads. Having proven himself as a solo artist and briefly redeemed his glory as the frontperson of Bauhaus, there was no clear step forward from there. He could have gracefully retired. Instead, he took the far more interesting road of experimenting with his sound and taking more risks with his career.

His first studio album since Cascade (1995) was Dust (2002), a fusion of traditional Turkish music with modern electronics. It's Murphy's most unique and distinctive album, and for the open-minded and patient listener, it's a pleasure to absorb its meandering, obscure beauty. However, it's a very long and subtle album that is apt to cause the listener to lose focus. The album wasn't quite a success and it was somewhat confusing for long-time fans.

Unsurprisingly, Murphy's next album, Unshattered (2004), was a blunt return to rock music. It was perhaps intended to be a return to form, especially with the appearance of Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins and two members of Jane's Addiction, but it was not a turn for the better. The exaggerated modern rock production style immediately sounded dated, and the songwriting was not Murphy's best.

In 2005, Bauhaus reunited once more, but it wasn't until 2008 that they released Go Away White. By that time, they'd already very publicly broken up again, and the album appeared with little fanfare. Furthermore, the album was apparently unfinished and came across somewhat rough. There's an undeniable appeal to the unusual looseness of their compositions, but many tracks have sections that seem to be missing parts. Mostly notably, at one point in "Mirror Remains", Murphy is heard informing Daniel Ash of the opportunity to play a solo, and Ash responds that his minimal part is the solo. Somehow, it's still one of the best songs.

Go Away White sounds like a conscious decision to be more than a sequel to Burning from the Inside. It's practically a completely different band than the one that recorded the first four Bauhaus albums. In retrospect, it sounds like a Peter Murphy solo album with the best backing band he could ask for, i.e. Love & Rockets. Indeed, there are more traces of the sound of Love & Rockets (or even Daniel Ash's solo work) than there are of the original Bauhaus albums. If you consider the album in the light of a supergroup collaboration instead of a continuance of something over 20 years old, it makes more sense and seems like a more successful creation. Still, the inclusion of "The Dog's a Vapour" from the 1998 reunion seems out of place and feels like cheating. The album starts fairly strong, but that track and the forgettable "Zikir" bring the album to a disappointing conclusion.

Murphy toured in 2008 and 2009 without a new album to promote. (I saw his performance in Hannover on that tour.) He eventually released a series of iTunes-only covers across 2009, and he performed those songs on tour in addition to a few other covers and some new songs that would later appear on Ninth. Murphy has always been fond of a good cover (especially when written by David Bowie), so these so-called "Secret Covers" were not particularly surprising. Unfortunately, though, they weren't very good, albeit in each case for different reasons. "Instant Karma" comes off as cheesy and overdone with backing vocals that jar with Murphy's aesthetic. "Space Oddity" is understated, lackluster, and absent enough beauty to make up for the missing energy. "Transmission" is by the numbers, except that Murphy's vocal adjustments only serve to distract and detract. "Hurt" (with Trent Reznor) is good, but feels too much like a copy of the Johnny Cash version. In each case, Murphy's take offers no improvements over the original.

Once Ninth was finally released in 2011, Murphy's recent arc started to make more sense. In retrospect, Go Away White seems like a precursor to Ninth, and the covers were perhaps just a warm-up and reassertion of his presence. However, Ninth is far more polished than either to the point of appearing artificial and overdone. Moving away from Murphy's typical moody and arty work, it's another try at a predictable alternative rock sound, but thankfully it is nowhere near as dated and embarrassing as Unshattered. It's perhaps not as idiosyncratic as other Murphy albums, but it's a semi-successful change of pace, which is invigorating and encouraging for an artist with a 30-year back catalog.

Ninth starts strong, but loses steam quickly. Songs like "Velocity Bird", "Seesaw Sway", and "I Spit Roses" are great exercises in modern rock, with powerful vocals and nice synth touches. "Never Fall Out" is a really good ballad with expressive depth and subtlety. However, "Secret Silk Society" drags on despite the eerie atmosphere, and "Créme de la Créme" is an outlier that would fit in more with Murphy's dramatic older style except that it would be entirely overshadowed. The rest are mostly hard-edged rock songs that don't quite work. One senses that Murphy was trying hard to have an aggressive edge, but it doesn't come off well. Ironically, one of these songs is called "Uneven & Brittle".

Shortly after the album's release, with little fanfare, Murphy released an EP named The Secret Bees of Ninth. Unexpectedly, that EP is everything I wanted from Ninth with none of the try-hard fakery. The four unique tracks are all moody, introspective, haunting ballads in the vein of "Never Fall Out". (The full version of "Secret Silk Society" is nothing particularly special, though, and "Seesaw Sway" is entirely redundant and out of place here.) The EP is less powerful than Ninth, but it makes for a much more consistent and enjoyable listen.

In this same time frame, Murphy had announced that he was reuniting with Mick Karn to work on a new Dali's Car album. Shortly thereafter, Karn was diagnosed with cancer, and he died in early 2011 before the album could be completed. However, Murphy managed to salvage an EP with some assistance (including drumming and mixing by Karn's former Japan bandmate Steve Jansen). In Glad Aloneness eventually came out in 2012, featuring two new compositions, two covers, and a reworked version of "Artemis" from their original 1984 album. It's disappointingly brief, but what is there (especially the two new songs) is great. There's a lot of promise, and it's quite sad to think of what might have been. Evaluating the EP in the context of Murphy's other recent work, it fits right in, but much like with Go Away White, it sounds like a distinctively Murphy-centered work with a top-notch collaborator.

In 2013, apparently disappointed with the undignified end of Bauhaus, Murphy announced a tour with his own backing band that would (almost) exclusively feature Bauhaus songs. This was loosely connected to the 35th anniversary of the band. I didn't make it to any part of the tour, but an official live recording of the LA show, Mr. Moonlight Tour, was released in assorted formats in 2014 and 2015. It presents Murphy taking the easy road, mostly just playing the same greatest hits. He awkwardly introduces several of the songs while the band plays the introductions, and while his voice is strong, he doesn't improve over any other versions. The band similarly do justice to the songs, but also take no risks and keep it reverential. The album (or at least the digital version I listened to) also has unnecessary and disruptive fades between each song. In every single way, it is inferior to Gotham (1998), the defining document of the reunited Bauhaus on stage, as well as Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape (1982) and just about any other live album of the original era.

Murphy's last release of new music as of writing was Lion in 2014, produced and co-written by Youth (Martin Glover). Featuring a heavier and dancier sound, it takes the energy, aggression, and polish of Ninth and pushes it even further, although in a more processed and less rock direction. It makes for a rather dense and cramped listen, as opposed to Murphy's usual celestial expansiveness. It's another interesting change of pace, but again has a feeling of trying hard to be edgy and modern without being very successful at it. Worst of all, in contemporaneous interviews, he repeatedly described the album in arrogant terms as vastly dynamic and diverse. At best, that was irony, because the album is the least varied of any that Murphy has ever been involved with.

A year later, Murphy released Remixes from Lion, which consists of seven extended remixes by Youth, three outtakes, and one "ambient" remix by Richard Thorne. Youth's remixes are unexciting and not substantially different than the originals. The three outtakes are at least somewhat interesting, and they actually provide some of the dynamics and diversity missing from Lion itself. "Gabriel" is a good song, but the other two are excessively lengthy and unspectacular.

Since then, Murphy released Wild Birds Live Tour in 2015, a retread of the Wild Birds compilation set on stage in LA from 2000. It would be fine, except that it is redundant and suffers from what sounds like bizarre compression on the drums and applause. It's incredibly distracting. The bassist flubs a few parts, and Murphy even has to stop in the middle of "Indigo Eyes" because his hand was cramping. At least that part is mildly amusing, and I'm glad they left it in instead of trying to fix it up somehow. However, the album stands in the shadow of Alive Just for Live, Murphy's brilliant live album from 2001 of another LA show from later in 2000. Where that album rearranged the songs for a creative electro-acoustic setting with just two other musicians, this album is a straight run-through with few variations from the norm.

Most recently, Murphy went on the Stripped tour in 2016. (My review of the Austin show is here.) Of the three Murphy shows I've seen, it was my favorite. Coincidentally, it was also somewhat similar in spirit and style to Alive Just for Love. Although I'm getting a little tired of Murphy's recent spate of mediocre live albums, I'm looking forward to his upcoming Bare Boned & Sacred, a document of the Stripped tour from a NYC show.

Murphy's last two decades of work have been all over the place. When he takes a chance and does something adventurous, he often succeeds. When he plays it safe and confines himself to more conventional alternative rock, he does himself a disservice. His attempts to be accessible and trendy are usually his least compelling work. Conversely, when he imbues his music with his own idiosyncratic personality, he shines and often produces something that no one else is capable of. It also seems that Murphy benefits from working with collaborators with their own strong visions. Instead of mere compromise, Murphy brings out the best in all involved parties. While another reunion of Bauhaus is unlikely (and impossible for Dali's Car), there is still promise that Murphy has more creative energy in him yet.

Dust (2002): B
Unshattered (2004): D
Go Away White (2008): B
"Secret Covers" singles (2009): C
Ninth (2011): B-
The Secret Bees of Ninth EP (2011): A-
In Glad Aloneness EP (2012): B+
Mr. Moonlight Tour (2014): D
Lion (2014): C+
Remixes from Lion (2015): D+
Wild Birds Live Tour (2015): C-