So, about having your cake and eating it…
Music may be the food of love, but you don’t find many songs devoted to munching and crunching. Don McLean wasn’t actually singing about a nice shortcrust with a gooey filling, was he? That beret that Prince blathered on about wasn’t literally decorated with the finest crop of new-season raspberries, and neither ‘Peach’ nor ‘Cream’ saluted a superior dessert. Drinking, of course, is much more glamorous. It can be sexy, dainty, even dangerous. It can be done with a straw. It’s Mick Jagger going for a soda at the Chelsea drugstore in ‘You can’t always get what you want’, or Kelis raising blood pressure with her milkshake. And then the romantic ravages of the binge – as we know from Amy Winehouse, rehab is a studio full of horns and shimmering strings. Funny how alcoholism and drug addiction have inspired a plethora of songwriters, yet bulimia and anorexia are absent from the rock canon. Perhaps eating is simply too mundane a narrative. Ian Dury didn’t sing about sex and cake and rock ‘n’ roll, after all. And when Rufus Wainwright confessed to loving cigarettes and chocolate milk, he reminded us nevertheless that these were ‘just a couple of his cravings’; clearly a mouthful of Frijj helped the little pills go down.
When food does make an appearance, it’s often either for metaphorical reasons or in the name of narrative realism. At one end, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (‘the world is just a great big onion’), at the other Joni Mitchell (the lady of the canyon who ‘may bake some brownies today’). Or else it’s whimsy – The Sugarcubes exhorting us to ‘have some salad’ or ‘bite an apple’ in ‘Eat the Menu’, Kate Bush asking us whether we’d like a guava in ‘Eat the Music’. Yes please, Kate! And then occasionally it’s both analogy and whimsy. Winning first prize in the ‘eccentric extended metaphor’ category is 10cc’s ‘Life is a Minestrone’, in which said life is ‘served up with parmesan cheese’. It’s also a ‘cold lasagne suspended in deep freeze’, while ‘love is a fire of flaming brandy / Upon a crepe suzette’. Typical of those pop pranksters to write a song about the redundancy of metaphor. When 10cc split down the middle, Godley and Creme re-emerged as a duo, and went one better with ‘Snack Attack’. Or one worse, depending on how you read lines as daft as ‘my willpower’s gone, I’m down on my knees / Praying to the God of cottage cheese’, or the rhyming of ‘flapjack’ with ‘Jack Kerouac’. Eat to the beat indeed…
All this becomes a little excessive, even indigestible, when you ruminate on it too much. Get me some antacid house! But then, if you still have an appetite, you might want to devour Roisin Murphy’s 2009 single ‘Orally Fixated’. It’s not for the faint-hearted or the heartburn-prone. It might turn your stomach. At the very least you’ll probably have to swallow a couple of Rennies. Having said that, you might want seconds, or even thirds.
Murphy has form here. Bar their two top ten singles, the pleasant-enough earworm ‘Sing it back’ and its more shimmering follow-up ‘The time is now’, I must say Moloko barely registered with me back in their brief nineties heyday. Were it not for my partner I may never have re-investigated them; the first mixtape he ever made for me had a track called ‘Lotus Eaters’ on it, from their first album Do You Like My Tight Sweater. Its compendiousness, its slightly jarring juxtaposition of P-funk, trip-hop, chunky synth and acid-jazz, struck me for some reason as wonderfully daft. Its recurring interpolation of KFC’s motto, ‘finger-lickin’ good’ seemed apt too; it was like one of those tray-bake confections loaded with apparently oddball combinations of ingredients, that nevertheless feel like the best type of indulgence. Given how serious and self-conscious the 1990s could be about authenticity, and how meat-and-potatoes it could all be, it was a gleeful antidote: a salmagundi. It’s this more-is-more approach that I love in Murphy’s work. A track like ‘Pure Pleasure Seeker’ (the brilliant third single from Moloko’s most successful album Things to make and do) might be minimalist in its riffery – that slinky, chromatic, saxy bass grind – but it’s only to underline an almost monomaniacal commitment to hedonism. ‘Gotta get me some instant gratification’, coos Roisin, and as if by magic, that’s precisely what we get – maddeningly good pop music.
Her two solo albums, however, are even better; their relative obscurity (Ruby Blue got to a measly number 88 in the UK album chart, though Overpowered just scraped a top twenty placing) places them in the hallowed pop pantheon of a parallel universe, a universe in which Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and a thousand X-factor winners carry no passports. Working with Matthew Herbert, the kind of doctor of poposophy who samples the sound of human skin and suchlike, transformed Murphy into an eccentric disco concrète diva. ‘If we’re in love we should make love’, she purrs, over a backing that somehow marries quartet-era Miles Davis to crispy almost Timbalandish noughties R & B. ‘Sow into you’ is both tangled and taut, cross-threaded and collaged; a rare-groove fidget. The courses just keep coming. And then a torch ballad, ‘The closing of the doors’, to cleanse the palate at the very end. That’s what you play when you’re patting your belly and wiping the wine-glasses with kitchen roll. 2007’s Overpowered isn’t quite as Heston Blumenthal – it’s less deconstructed – but it’s still triple-star Michelin pop, referencing a Depeche Mode plink here (the title track) and unearthing an imaginary eighties soul weekender staple there (‘Footprints’). This was the height of Murphy’s lampshade-hatted glory – I saw a couple of triumphant sets at the Big Chill and the Roundhouse at this time, and was utterly bowled over by this stylish music that chewed up postmodernism and regurgitated pop brilliance on the other side.
This is one of the things Murphy shares with her American namesake, James (see my last piece on ‘Losing my edge’) – a sort of post-postmodern pop sensibility that allows for arched eyebrows and a genuine love of the genre simultaneously. But as its title suggests, ‘Orally Fixated’ is the sound of pop gone monomaniacal. Murphy has claimed that the song was written while she was pregnant, and so the ‘you’ addressed in the song isn’t hard to identify (‘you always want what I’ve got’, she complains, surely the first ever example of placenta fatigue in popular music). Taken at the literal level, the song’s lyrics draw on this experience to make wider points about the perils of addiction; deliciously, we get Alice in Wonderland – whispers of ‘eat me’, ‘drink me’, resounding and careening through the speakers. There’s much extended metaphor, much of it borderline filthy, and on a surface level it’s Freudian gastropop gone rampant.
But to me, this is a song about songs, about pop’s constant need to feed itself by feeding off itself. Not so much orally as aurally fixated. It’s a song with a severe case of ADHD: it simply will not settle. It’s perfectly conventional in its structure – verses, choruses, instrumentals – but that structure is threatened by all sorts of low-flying missiles. Cut-up samples, coughing percussion, collaged backing vocals that stutter in and out of the mix…they’re all thrown into the track to destabilise it as much as possible. Studios are dangerous places these days; when any effect is possible, you have to exercise severe restraint, have to rap your own knuckles as they reach for yet another reverse cymbal or synth patch. That’s what seems to be happening in this song: the multiple sonic effects are a series of tics and twitches sternly reprimanded by a producer who’s often barely in control. They keep popping out against the song’s will. Gradually they take over, until a comedy guitar solo fretwanks all over the speakers – an obscene but seemingly unstoppable incursion. Then the track gets stuck – you’d be forgiven for thinking the CD had jammed (though of course this in itself a retro affectation, a pre-MP3 throwback) – and malfunctions into pure chaos, before somebody comes and pulls the plug and puts it out of its misery.
This self-sabotaging record isn’t for the faint-hearted. It often sounds deliberately ugly, though Murphy’s gorgeous, velvety voice glides above it, a siren luring the listener intentionally towards the rocks. It’s a bit of a monster, much like the child (or lover?) in the lyrics, feeding parasitically off its host. Like ‘Losing my edge’, it revels in pop’s obsessive recyclings, though here you get the sense it’s much more about the perils of the mixing desk than the exhaustion of the record collector. ‘Ain’t you heard that less is more?’ asks Roisin at one point, clearly a rhetorical question when the track is overloading itself all around her. Some people might think that in ‘Orally Fixated’, more is too much, but I for one think that on this occasion more is more. Moreish, in fact, like your favourite cake. Have it. Eat it too.