Over the course of a 12-year career, Thea Gilmore has quietly but fervently carved out a space for herself as possibly Britain’s pre-eminent acoustic singer-songwriter, an artist who gains critical plaudits and respect from her peers but little commercial success. Whether Murphy’s Heart – Gilmore’s tenth studio LP – will go any lengths to changing that is almost irrelevant because Gilmore has never been one to court commercial success, resisting major label offers in a bid to retain her artistic control and integrity, and instead has focused on building up a catalogue of quietly powerful music.
Age and experience have given Gilmore a depth and richness as an artist of late that was not always present on earlier, passionate, if somewhat less focused, records like Burning Dorothy and The Lipstick Conspiracies. It was around the time of 2001’s Rules for Jokers that Gilmore “found her voice,” eschewing some of her Americanisms for an album of literate acoustic music. The muddy, ramshackle Songs From The Gutter followed, before Gilmore perfected the sound on the excellent Avalanche.
After the covers stop-gap Loft Music, Gilmore returned after an uncharacteristically long three-year break with the pristine Harpo’s Ghost on Sanctuary but, deeming it too glossy, she returned to a more acoustic, stripped sound for Liejacker and the winter-themed Strange Communion. Murphy’s Heart arrives on the back of a spell of much creativity, her third new album in just over two years. Strange Communion replaced some of the blandness of Liejacker with a real beauty and elegance, and Murphy’s Heart develops the sound by adding some intriguing new musical ideas.
The thing to hit the listener immediately is the fantastically clear production. Everything sounds so clear and well-captured, every breath of Gilmore’s voice, every bang on some exotic percussion instrument. “This Town” is one of her best album openers, with its dirty bass line, inventive percussion, a light vocal from Gilmore, an imaginative, subtle change of rhythmic pulse in the chorus contributing to its sense of urgency and, most glorious of all, the presence of brass. Here it’s sassy, elsewhere it’s utilised differently, but the addition of brass and horns into Gilmore’s arrangements makes for quite spellbinding listening.
“God’s Got Nothing On You” boasts one of her purest melodies and vocal performances in the tradition of the great English folksingers, but with a faster, harder-edged arrangement, yet still a lightness of touch. “Due South” and “Automatic Blue” recall the slow-tempo beauty of Strange Communion, with the former incorporating some mournful violin work from long-time collaborator Fluff, and the latter, one of her simplest, loveliest romantic ballads, bringing harmonium into the mix.
The politicised Gilmore of yore returns on the impassioned “Love’s the Greatest Instrument of Rage,” a fast-paced folk stomper. It could be argued that the drums almost take away some of its powerful intensity, but it’s nevertheless a highlight. As is the quirky, unorthodox “Jazz Hands,” a playful carnival-esque tune that recalls, curiously, both KT Tunstall’s “Hold On” and Franks Wild Years -era Tom Waits. (Gilmore’s high voice is brilliant here, although it’s initially strange to hear her utter such a provocative line as “at least one part of you’s a killer dancer.”) The Waitsian influence resurfaces on the spooky, ghostly “Coffee and Roses,” which recalls some of Waits’ later romantic love ballads.
“You’re the Radio” is in the mould of “Juliet” and “That’ll Be Christmas” – a pleasant, catchy, radio-friendly lead single that does the job of promoting the record without sticking out like a sore thumb. In other words, it fits into the Murphy’s Heart ethos nicely but isn’t the sure-fire standout. It is followed by the up-tempo “Teach Me To Be Bad,” which you can imagine going down well in concert, and the urgent “Not Alone,” which features one of the record’s most elegant melodies. But one of the most elegant of all belongs to the beguiling “How The Love Gets In,” which is like a prettier and less miserable “Icarus Wind” (from Liejacker but originally released on 2007’s The Threads EP.) It’s wonderfully melancholy and romantic, and the cornerstone of the last quarter of the record. The slow “Mexico” is the definition of a ‘grower,’ while “Wondrous Thing,” making use of gorgeous horns and a slinky rhythm (plus some nice reverb effect on Gilmore’s vocals), is an appropriately sexy, subtle, romantic, vaguely jazz-inspired closer.
It’s early to make grand assumptions, but Gilmore and husband and collaborator Nigel Stonier, plus all the musicians who worked on the album, should be very proud of how Murphy’s Heart has turned out. It has all the elegance and grace that Gilmore has acquired of late but also some much-needed vigour has made a comeback, and the use of brass was a wise and successful decision. She is an incredibly intelligent and literate writer but sometimes it does feel as if her songs have attractive wordplay without saying very much. But, when you’ve a record as gorgeous as this, it’s a minor criticism. Still only 30, it’s exciting to think of what else Gilmore might have in store in the coming years. Murphy’s Heart feels like a new chapter may be starting.