Elliott Murphy: Wonder

The Elliott Murphy jukebox musical would likely be called Just A Story From America, and could follow Murphy’s career in two acts of theatre (Act 1: from his 1973 major label debut, Aquashow, a “New Dylan” and general Big Deal, to Act 2: moving to Paris in 1989, his years in Europe, including come-backs, awards and appearances on big stages with superstars, for comedic effect he will struggle with his French and strange European habits).

A West End or Broadway musical may not be such a push; Murphy’s “personal brand”, to use that loathsome expression, is well established through a lifetime of albums, singles, videos, films and concerts, and Wonder could be something like Murphy’s 41st album. A few of the song titles also immediately bring to mind the world of musical theatre. “I Know There’s a Place” is a cousin of West Side Story’s “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)”; “Raindrops” or “Hailstones” could be from “Singin’ in the Rain”.

Wonder is on the more idiosyncratic side of the Murphy canon; by that we mean it has character. The love-struck “Bystanders” is in a world if its own with a heavenly vocal enhanced by Melissa Cox’s violin. “That’s The Scene” is a rock and roll extravaganza with a sometimes growling vocal in the style of Murphy’s friend Lou Reed and tinkering piano by Leo Cotten.  “Children of Children” offers some playful advice – “if you eat waffles in the morning, you’ll have sweet dreams at night”, with the musical tone shifting between the quizzical verses and dramatic choruses.

The album was produced, engineered and mixed by Gaspard Murphy and there are some impressive artistic flourishes; the surround sound whistle of show tune “Lonely King” (imagine Murphy standing before a piano on that theatre stage, or “on the Zoom in my dark room” as per the lyrics, as he wonders whether he has the world on a string, like Sinatra). The deep downward piano chords of “Lack of Perspective” emphasise sweeping drama, and the problems with looking back at history; the gentle choral singing of “Hope (In Your Eyes)” uplifts and inspires. There is a wealth of multi-layered detail; the backing vocals by American singer-songwriter B.J. Scott on five of the tracks, an Elvis-like “oh yeah” at the end of “Something Consequential” (which earlier bursts suddenly into life like the relationship it’s describing). “I Know There’s a Place” switches into showbiz cabaret with its humorous spoken word close – “You have been listening to my new album Wonder – recorded in stereophonic sound using both vintage and modern technology”.

Wonder is Murphy’s first “post-Covid” album, with most of the songs written during the early days of the pandemic (four with long-time music partner Olivier Durand and one with Gaspard Murphy); it reflects a wide range of emotions invoked by a virus which became “our long-term global roommate”. The album leans on the weather to express human feelings (pathetic fallacy, but not so pathetic). Sunlight keeps falling in the song of the same name, with perhaps a nod and a wink to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, but “it’s so dark I can hardly see”.  The jaunty “Raindrops” takes solace despite the rain that “some day, joys are coming”. Life is a mess in “Hailstones”, but there’s some determination to go out in a blaze of Rolling Thunder (violin and harmonica), and the philosophical resignation that we’ll leave love when we die.

The core band for the sessions was made up of Elliott Murphy (guitars), Olivier Durand (guitars). Gaspard Murphy (guitars), Leo Cotten (keyboards), Melissa Cox (violin), Aurelien Barbolosi (bass) and Alan Fatras and Tom Daveau alternate on drums. Most of them also add backing vocals from time to time and some lend their hand to an array of other interesting instruments; perhaps the most exotic is Gaspard Murphy’s addition of Glockenspiel to “Bystanders”, and there’s further help from Nicolas Montazaud (congas, shaker, tambourine, conga – “Hope”, “Lonely”, “Something Consequential”, “Sunlight Keeps Falling”), Michel Fehrenbach (clarinet on “I Know There’s A Place”) and Natasha Rodgers (cajon, bongos, triangle, Cabasa on “Children of Children”). “Lonely King” features the trio of Elliott and Gaspard Murphy with Cotten on piano.

True to form, Murphy’s lyrics are interesting and witty; in the western inspired “Lonely”, he asks “why can’t some Steve Jobs genius/cut the meanness and paste love for us all” and in “I Know There’s a Place” suggests that “youth is surely wasted on the young but the wisdom of survival eventually finds everyone”. The wonder of the title is mentioned ten times across three different songs – Murphy’s musical and intellectual curiosity ensures the listener’s continued engagement.

Wonder is available on CD (limited signed and numbered edition CD from Murphy’s website), download and streaming platforms.

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Label: Murphyland
Release Date: 23 SEP 2022