The release of a new Róisín Murphy album is always an event for fans of forward-thinking electronic pop, and even more so considering the eight-year gap between Overpowered and its follow-up, Hairless Toys. Along with starting a family, Murphy spent that time experimenting and collaborating; between all of her one-off singles, EPs, and cameos, she appeared on well over an album's worth of music. While most of that work felt like an extension of the disco-tinged sound that defined Ruby Blue and Overpowered, Hairless Toys opts for a more personal approach that is so powerful in part because it's so quiet. Even "Gone Fishing," which draws inspiration from the '80s ball culture immortalized in the documentary Paris Is Burning, is more breezy than brash as Murphy sings about "My mother's mistake/My father's heartbreak" in a voice just above a whisper. On the rest of Hairless Toys, she casts a similarly understated spell that feels significantly different from the shapeshifting she perfected with Moloko and on her first two solo albums. The effect is sophisticated but stays away from the artistic graveyard of tastefulness on "Evil Eyes," where an earworm melody and irresistible groove are bold but not flashy. Similarly, "Exploitation" could have easily been a three-minute single, but the way it unfolds in a sensuous nine-and-a-half-minute haze is more luxurious and ambitious. Since this is a Róisín Murphy album, there are still plenty of quirks -- note the blobby synth bass and waggish backing vocals on "Uninvited Guest" -- yet they don't detract from the meditative vibe. Interestingly, this cohesive mood allows more facets of her personality-packed voice to emerge. There's a newfound tenderness that feels descended from Mi Senti, Murphy's Italian-language EP that paid homage to singers such as Mina with a similar openness and vulnerability. She expands on it in fascinating and affecting ways, whether on the bruised title track, the nostalgia-free reminiscences of "House of Glass," or the gorgeous, aching "Exile," a dreamy bit of torchy twang that sounds like Dusty Springfield on Mars. "I'll be back with a vengeance," she purrs, and it's this kind of emotional complexity that makes Hairless Toys a welcome return and Murphy's most satisfying album yet.
(CD - Pias #PIASL152CD)
Review by Heather Phares