Pop Culturing: Pop's Disco Moment Climaxes with Róisín Murphy's 'Róisín Machine'

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Saturday October 24, 2020

Róisín Murphy performing "Murphy's Law" at home.
Róisín Murphy performing "Murphy's Law" at home.  (Source:YouTube Still)

Disco isn't dead and it never really has been (Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" and its hit single "Get Lucky" came out just a few years ago). But in 2020, when so much of the world feels like it's in chaos, pop music has again embraced the genre pioneered by Black and queer people. Throughout the year, a number of musicians have dropped disco-infused music, including Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, and Jessie Ware. (Kylie Minogue's 15th album, literally called "Disco," drops next month.) Most recently, Irish singer Róisín Murphy, who has played with disco for two decades now, released her fifth album "Róisín Machine" — and it couldn't have come at a more perfect time.

Looking at the Billboard charts this year, bangers rooted in disco have been dominating, like The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" and Doja Cat's "Say So," which features a Nicki Minaj verse. Gaga's "Rain on Me," featuring Ariana Grande, peaked at No. 1 one on the Hot 100 while Dua Lipa has had three sings rule the top 10 ("Don't Start Now," "Physical" and "Break My Heart"). Not to mention she also released the incredibly fun remix album "Club Future Nostalgia" (helmed by The Blessed Madonna and featuring several house and disco icons) and a new "Levitating" remix featuring DaBaby (before that, Dua Lipa tapped Madonna and Missy Elliot for The Blessed Madonna's remix of the song). The wildly popular K-pop group BTS also had a chart-topping single "Dynamite" and everyone from Kelly Rowland ("Crazy") to Miley Cyrus (she puts a glam-rock spin on "Midnight Sky") has released disco jams.

Pop music has welcomed a disco revival every now and then but something seems different this time around. The freeing and euphoric sounds of disco hit harder than ever during a time when people — especially queer people — can't go to safe spaces to be themselves. There's no album that's come out in 2020 that urges listeners to get to the club than Murphy's "Róisín Machine." It's a sprawling 10-track album that clocks in at 54 minutes, full of 70s disco pastiche that's rooted in Black and queer culture and sounds. It's a celebration of nightclubs and club kids that begs to be blasted on a dancefloor.

"I was always brought up in dance music to know that it came from gay culture," she told the gay dating app Grindr in an interview. "You know, it was not a big surprise to find that out because I knew it from the very beginning. That was where the best parties were, the best music, the best drugs, and the best craic. You know?"

Indeed, "Róisín Machine" would sound best being played as you boogie down next to a bunch of half-dressed, sweaty queers. But, like the best disco music, there is also something a bit tragic in the lyrics of Murphy's new music. "I feel my story's still untold, but I'll make my own happy ending," she chants on the album's hypnotic opening track, "Simulation," which was released in 2012. She reiterates that phrase on her shimmering and sexy single "Murphy's Law." "I feel my story's still untold, but I'll make my own happy ending/ I guess I'd rather be alone / Than making do and mending / I think maybe I've outgrown this old town / I see you almost every day/ And every time I turn around / Our love is stuck on replay," she says over handclaps and a piano riff before the song lifts off.

"Jealousy," the song's closing album and the best of the 10 songs, was previously released in 2015. Like with "Simulation," Murphy worked with Sheffield producer Richard Barratt (a.k.a. DJ Parrot / Crooked Man), who she knew since she was a teen.

"Initially, [Parrot] didn't know how people would dance to somebody singing 'I'm incapable'; he was a bit worried about that one for a while," she told The Irish Times of her new album. "And then he found this amazing groove for it and put it out on his own label last year, and it all went off — everybody went mad for it. So as soon as there was that spark, it was just a matter of a few short months before it was done."

"Róisín Machine" is full of epic songs with run times way over five minutes. (The deluxe edition of the album features extended mixes of six songs, with some tracks nearly 12 minutes.) That goes against today's pop music grain, where singers are abandoning the standard 3-minutes-and-some-change runtime and opting for songs that are under 3 minutes. On her new album, she fuses disco music with house, Italian disco and funk. Shrill violins, four-on-the-floor beats, drum 'n bass, funk and other sounds pulse many of the tracks, like "Jealousy," a relentless 4-minute-and-13-second track with heavy bass and Murphy's stunning voice: "This is the darker side of a beautiful feeling / Born out of chemistry and a tangle of needing," she longingly sings.

Murphy's new album is a disco journey; she guides listeners through the sounds of the genre, recalling the glory days of Studio 54, Donna Summer but it's ultimately a celebration. "Róisín Machine" (she named the album that because she says she's "a machine — I can't stop creating") is a tour-de-force and a modern classic; Murphy is showing everyone how disco should be done.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.