The taming and containment of alternative (nee ‘indie’) culture over the past decade has been painful to watch. Squads of major label operatives, armed with the the stick noose of streaming, cornered the hissing beast to keep it a safe distance from the singles chart, then injected it with an anaesthetic neck dart of EDM noises, ‘80s synths and boyband choruses to keep it docile enough for a modern audience to pet without fear or challenge. Hence the musical zoos of 2020 are crammed with safe, sedated pop takes on ‘indie’ – Bastille, Catfish, Mumford.
But, as every monster movie scientist has swiftly discovered, you can’t keep a creature with chaos in its nature chained up forever. IDLES, Yungblud and Fontaines D.C. are throwing themselves at the cage bars until they snap. Perfume Genius, Sufjan Stevens and a million other laptop pioneers are bending cheap technology to their own degraded sonic ends. Truly alternative, underground music – not Top Shop’s off-the-peg idea of it – is staging a ferocious fightback.
Matthew ‘Murph’ Murphy is one of very few figures who has weaved his way through this minefield with any sort of dignity intact. The singer’s main gig, The Wombats, escaped the late-‘00s guitar pop cul-de-sac by embracing more playlist-friendly electronic tones. This was partly responsible for what we’ll call ‘Insta-indie’ (posed, filtered, somewhat put-on) becoming a viable prospect, but Murph’s high-end song-writing and wry, self-deprecating honesty stopped them being swallowed whole by the mainstream.
The debut album from his Gorillaz-style collaborative solo project Love Fame Tragedy marks a smart culmination of guitar pop’s journey. 17 (!) tracks, covering an array of styles from electro rock to ambient house, indie synth-pop, neo-funk and all-out rave R&B – and featuring guest contributions from figures as heavyweight as Pixies’ Joey Santiago, Soundgarden’s Matt Chamberlain and Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton – it’s a project with substance, credibility and crossover appeal. And Murph’s open-psychiatric-report approach to the lyrics, taking the opportunity of a semi-solo album to get more personal than ever before, makes it a required text for the Wombats cultists hooked on his relatable tales of frustrating nightclub experiences, mental instability, uncontrollable mood swings and a marriage that makes a Christmas EastEnders look like the model of stability and decorum.
“The pills don’t work anymore / Not like they used to,” he admits on the ambient R&B ‘Pills’. The future funk of ‘5150’ opens the album with Murph driving all night to Phoenix to blow “15 months rent” on sex and partying, despairing at his helpless hedonism in auto-tune, like a regretful T-Pain. Electro-rocker ‘My Cheating Heart’ details wild old times in San Francisco; on the shamelessly pop ‘Multiply’, featuring glitchy soul vocals from Australian singer Jack River, he’s raging around the casinos and dive clubs of Paris like every single one of us ten minutes after the vaccine arrives.
Such antics come coloured with shame, regret… and a little fondness. Even while ‘Brand New Brain’ tells of a relationship disintegrating after a night spent drink-driving and throwing rocks at his partner’s car, come ‘Honeypie’ – pure, undiluted Insta-indie right down to the space-age twinkles and drainpipe percussion – Murph is finding the more sober alternative unbearable. “I’m kinda bored of swimming round the bottom of oblivion,” he sings, finding that “SSRIs keep the molly from working”. “Come play out tonight,” he concludes.
Peppered by mental health confessionals such as ‘Everything Affects Me Now’ and ‘Sharks’, ‘Wherever I Go…’ may read like an anxiety-riddled cry for help, but sounds supremely confident. Whether tackling lusty future rock on ‘Body Parts’ and ‘Hardcore’, attacking the algorithm on full-on house anthem ‘You Take The Fun Out Of Everything’ or begging his wife not to kill him on acoustic soul interlude ‘Please Don’t Murder Me (Part 2)’, Murph’s melodic skills are honed to surgical precision.
Of 17 tracks only ‘Pink Mist’ sounds like superfluous filler, and considering it’s about finding love mid-plane crash, Murph’s mind may have been elsewhere. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more hook-laden and enjoyable catalogue of breakdowns and anxieties this year – this is arguably the definitive 2020 album.