Nick Murphy Chronicles Dramatic Self-Introspection With His Frenzied and Poetic ‘Run Fast Sleep Naked’
It’s common knowledge that life on the road can drive a person mad. In the words of Australian singer-songwriter Nick Murphy, “You only talk to people you pay, or are putting you onto some type of commercial transport.” Dwell on that for a moment, and the number of flagrantly neurotic albums that typically come out in artists’ mid careers should take new perspective. Murphy won critical acclaim for his work under his previous moniker Chet Faker, under which he produced a unique, edgy blend of organic and electronic music, with a voice and lyricism that stood out. His latest album, “Run Fast Sleep Naked,” released under his own name, is the result of four years spent traveling with a microphone in his briefcase, and recording vocal tracks whenever and whenever inspiration struck. He fleshed the vocal bits into full songs with the help of the legendary RIck Rubin, recruiting a motley crew of musicians and a full orchestra. It’s an outstanding and emotive album about confronting the searing strain of relative isolation, and coming to terms with one’s true self.
Murphy’s lone voice starts the album off, as an odd sonic pastiche develops around him, and he begins to bellow, “I can hear it now / inside my ears.” Of course, the second part goes without saying — except that “ears” doubles as “years,” making the words take on a whole new meaning. Murphy bemoans the toll of time with a rather painful rawness and authenticity. Eventually, it all devolves into a delightful racket of what sounds like deranged fiddling and radically unfettered world percussion. As the track develops, the cacophony escalates into a free jazz indulgence full of Eastern raga haze and piercing feedback swells, at points recalling bits of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” and at this stage, you have to take Murphy at his word when he bellows, “I can hear it.”
“Harry Take Drugs on the Weekend” begins sounding very much like “Confusion Is Sex / Kill Your Idols”-era Sonic Youth. Murphy’s repetitions of “Green light, red light” sound like just the type of thing that Kim Gordon would mutter. Then violins lay down a rhythm, and Murphy begins his narrative about the comfortably numb eponymous character. After the chorus of “Guess I’m losing my mind,” a horn section bursts out into a jubilant figure that sounds just slightly off, and gets slightly more so over the course of the song, ostensibly mimicking gradual mental decay. “Sanity” is a funky, percussive riot, with outrageous scraping noises strategically situated. Murphy sings, “Couldn’t see the signs for help,” and reasons, “Uh, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” zeroing in an often overlooked predicament. If you ignore a problem, it will creep up on you and you’ll be doomed. On the other hand, if you acknowledge the problem, you’ll be stuck with all the misery that it entails. It’s a lose-lose situation. Sometimes all you can do is revel in the hopelessness, which is what the music suggests, delving into the most poorly aged ‘80s dance sounds with a gleefully ironic abandon, joyful choirs egging everything on.
The theme of coming face to face with lingering issues continues on “Sunlight,” a banjo-filled number with more horns and exciting, dense instrumental interplay. In an especially brilliant bit of imagery, Murphy captures the act of running from one’s problems in the lines, “Nothing’s wrong in the sun / I can let my shadow run.” Next, “Some People” evokes cruising through the desert, with Murphy’s singing in the lower register somehow giving a vaguely Hunter S. Thompson vibe. At the very end, it erupts into possibly the wildest bit of sonics yet, making the racket of the opening track sound like easy listening.
At this point, you can predict the general subject matter of the next track, and sure enough, “Yeah I Care” features the refrain “I think I’m running / Yeah I think I’m running.” Murphy might have made up his mind regarding the aforementioned paradox, judging from the titular line, issued in a grand exclamation. This track stands out for its phenomenal guitar playing — truly inventive, pitch-shifting, noise art stuff. Next comes the promisingly-titled “Novacaine and Coca Cola.” With Coke’s sordid history, from cocaine beverage to subliminal advertising, we could have all seen this as the inevitable next step. The song is a lull in all the frenzy, with Murphy putting on a tongue-in-cheek falsetto for the titular phrase, and at one point bursting into some sort of tranquilized doo wop routine, over an atypically barebones backdrop. A flute bit at the end gives a Spaghetti Western feel, bringing out a sensibility already latent in the music.
“Never No” plunges deeper into the abyss with realizations like, “No, no one can know / Where I belong now / Where I should go,” and pleas like, “Save us from ourselves,” pronounced as if directed toward the sky, feet firmly planted on barren desert soil. At one point, there’s a traditional heavy metal-style high-pitched, sustained howl, suggesting Murph might have finally lost it completely. He’s back in proper form, however, come the latest single “Dangerous.” Over a sparse, somewhat mechanical backdrop, full of fades and swells, he reflects on a past relationship, using it as a springboard to continue his self-introspection. He ponders, “I know I’m honest with myself / But does my self know when it lies?” and horns enter as if prompting a moment of realization, when he asks, “Now what do I do? Maybe I’m dangerous.” Then there’s a burst into an elaborate avant harmony, recalling the likes of Dirty Projectors. The track finds a groove, and by the end all the scattered musings seem somewhat directed with purpose.
The opening moments of “Believe (Me)” suggest the exodus is over, as it transports you to a piano bar in the type of nightclub you see in old Woody Allen movies. Sure enough, Murphy sings, “I got this feeling now, that its turning out how its supposed to be,” although he seems to be still grappling with his philosophical conundrums. He explores the conflict between desire and necessity, reflecting, “We all want something / That looks like nothing like what we need.” Midway, a few static bursts arrest you, and his voice suddenly gets the robot treatment, as if the scattered thoughts have been codified and mechanized. The juxtaposition of the electronic processing and the acoustic background makes for one of the album’s most exhilarating moments. And thematically, it looks like Murphy has, more or less, found his way.
With the troubled troubadour business now basically come to an end, closer “Message You at Midnight” veers off in a new direction. The song is directed to a femme fatale that presumably had a hand in choreographing the near mental breakdown that inspired the bulk of the record. “Over a vaguely “Eleanor Rigby”-type orchestral treatment, Murphy sings, “I’ll message you at midnight, when we don’t need the sunshine,” which is interesting considering the lyrics of “Sunlight” which used daylight to symbolize denial of one’s problems. The presumed implication is that when both parties have acknowledged their own issues, they can reunite. In the end, consumed by amorous emotion, Murphy ends up reduced to repeated histrionic outpourings of, “ And I can’t help the way I feel around you.”
There’s scarcely a complaint to be made about “Run Fast Sleep Naked,” apart that you must be adventurous enough in spirit to endure it. You could call it a concept album, insofar as all the songs fit together to portray a composite experience. The music is expressive and innovative, at times getting downright hysterical — in the best way possible. The lyrics are heartfelt, and effortlessly insightful, and when paired with the music, communicate a certain state of mind in a thrillingly compelling way. The album is quite a diversion from Murphy’s work as Chet Baker, as the electronics are here used only sparingly. Still, it seems like another free excursion in the same voice, and one carried out with consummate artistic integrity.
“Run Fast Sleep Naked” is available April 26 on Apple Music.