Notes from the Underground is almost the journal of a forgotten man; one whose every pillar has crumbled into dust, with the exception of his humanity. Listening to this set is like going through a recently discovered journal of a poet who has simply vanished into the ether. It's full of intimacies most people would write down in code, if at all, to keep from being discovered. Elliott Murphy is backed by a hot band led by guitarist Olivier Durand and featuring Kenny Margolis on organs, pianos, strings, and accordion, with bassist Laurent Pardo, and drummer Alan Fatras with percussionist Florent Barbier adding some extra texture and bottom end. Murphy's son Gaspard guests on guitar on "Frankenstein's Daughter." The reason for mentioning the band is that they are intrinsic to the intimate atmosphere on this set. Murphy's voice has gotten lower with time, and he's obviously looked back to his early inspirations as both he, and they, have aged. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are obvious influences, but Murphy also revisits himself some years on. "And General Robert E. Lee," which opens the set, goes right back to his Night Lights album with its blurry flurry of images, minor chords, and strutting electric and acoustic guitars, with Durand's slide and Margolis' upright piano adding the close-to-the-rails desperation Murphy has always done so well. It's a tune populated with ghosts and archetypes, from the seeming subject in the title to James Cagney a "bad princess," Charlie Chaplin, Jules Verne, Captain Hook and "no Peter Pan," as well as a "dead pharaoh," and "Telstar." Yeah. Murphy pulls it off without seeming the least bit silly. All of the memory evoked in this mid-tempo rocker suggests that these archetypes are wound as tightly in the protagonist's mind and heart as the lover he is speaking to.
The Dylan influence is evidence is most clearly heard in the striking, haunting, country-ish "The Valley Below" that feels like a hymn. It is so close to Dylan that had he written it, it would have appeared on Modern Times; Murphy's low-end vocal even resembles Dylan's and the production is a dead ringer. That's said, it's way more than a knock-off. It's a love song delivered in the moment, but it projects the eternal. It's a song about living immediately because it passes so quickly, and could almost be written as both pledge and an elegy: "So let us cross over the river/And let us rest in the shade of the trees/Let us gaze upon each other/Let us fall upon our knees/Let us kiss the longest kiss/That would last a thousand years/A century -- a lifetime -- and my love would still be here." "On My Mind" is another love song that reflects in very mature terms the troubling, astounding mystery of new love finding the protagonist later in life. Durand's guitar and Margolis' organ paint this tune attentively and warmly, but also offer a taut bite that recalls and reminds the listener of the grace and danger in such a moment. Throughout the album, Murphy's heroes and anti-heroes reveal themselves to be exactly the right size. His larger-than-life outlaws and outcasts are boiled down into a solitary confused man trying to make sense of his blessings and sins, and reconciling his desires with reality. He may long for a few moments from the days of yore, but he realizes that they've led to the present and he hasn't anything to complain about; he's not content, but he's not ravenously hungry, either. Notes from the Underground is a solid, consistent, and tender part of Murphy's catalog. It's a rock record from a man who is trying to accept aging gracefully, but still has a wild child beating in his heart. It's an album for anybody with regrets, anyone who has willingly left anywhere never to return, and anybody willing to accept the cost of great love on its own terms. The bottom line: it's his best record in a decade.