To his credit, Murphy never attempted to change his spirited blend of rock and folk; he merely sharpened his pen and recorded intelligent, destined-for-obscurity works like 1986’s Milwaukee. Although American record buyers ignored the talented wordsmith in favor of hair-metal and grunge, European audiences loved Murphy’s sophisticated wordplay. Moving his family to Paris, Murphy continued to work throughout the ‘90s, cranking out classics like 1993’s Unreal City. His steadfast refusal to bow to musical trends or industry expectations has earned Murphy a solid reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter as well as the friendship of folks like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Sonny Landreth, and others.
Elliott Murphy’s Notes From the Underground
Murphy’s best work is always filled with brilliant imagery, and Notes From the Underground, the artist’s latest, is certainly no exception. The album-opening, mid-tempo rocker “And General Robert E. Lee” begins with a strongly strummed guitar before launching into a storm of cinematic lyricism, a tale of romance gone wrong with references to James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin and other cultural touchstones, Murphy’s vocals supported by a mournful, weeping lead guitar. The subdued, Dylanesque “The Valley Below” matches Murphy’s best low-register, croaking vocal performance with sparse instrumentation that builds from a silent buzz to a resounding rattle-and-hum, the song’s romantic lyrics delivered with no little passion. “What’s That” is a spry rocker, Murphy’s rapid-fire vocals spitting out stream-of-consciousness wisdom, organized A to Z, the song delivering essential knowledge on everything from love to tea to personal hygiene.
The beautiful “Ophelia” is pure, trademark Murphy…rough-hewn vocals caressing delicate, carefully-crafted vocals above a stunning blend of acoustic guitar and lush rhythms. The dark, discordant “Frankenstein’s Daughter” features Murphy’s son Gaspard on guitar, supporting his father’s fractured, atmospheric vocals with intriguing, off-kilter fretwork. The haunting “Crying Creatures of the Universe” offers an almost spiritual vocal delivery, with sorrowful harmonica and folkish guitar supporting the singer’s wistful remembrances.
The lyrical themes visited by Murphy on Notes From the Underground are familiar favorites of the songwriter: the cost of love and loss on the human soul; the intrusion of the past on the present and future; the long shadow cast by the places we’ve been and the people we’ve known. No other songwriter provides these themes with more thought and vitality than Elliott Murphy, the finely-drawn protagonists of his songs standing on the outside of life, looking in. They’re life’s misfits and outlaws, men literally without countries, their homelessness as much a state of mind as it is a physical absence.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Notes From the Underground is a perfect showcase for Murphy’s uncanny ability to spin words into emotional landscapes. Supported by a talented band that has developed a special musical chemistry with Murphy – especially the phenomenal guitarist Oliver Durand – the ex-pat rocker has created his best album since 1998’s Beauregard, a late-career triumph that proves that Elliott Murphy remains the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. (Elliott Murphy Music, released April 15th, 2008)
Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2008