Nick Murphy made his name with a sexy, stoner cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” under the alias Chet Faker, a telling moniker for a pale Australian soul man. But like the jazz singer that moniker puns on, Murphy brought his own sexy, addled style to the table. It’s equally telling that he’s issued Run Fast Sleep Naked, his second full-length LP, under his real name. The singing’s less mannered, the vocal production lighter, the arrangements more varied, the rhythms more fidgety and expressionist. Maybe it’s too easy to say it’s the sound of a faker getting real. But the record seems to present a self-aware dude who, having gotten over in a fairly big way, maybe feels a bit unworthy, like he might not be quite the shit fame’s made him out to be, like the life he’s living might be somewhat destructive, like he’s getting old and maybe missing the point.
These are recognizable sophomore album sentiments, although Murphy has plowed some of the fields before. “I made plans to be myself/ I made my heart a beating drum/ It was a move for human health,” Murphy declares on the opening track above a vaguely raga-ish groove, draped in harp arpeggios and rising on gospel builds, with an explosion of free-jazzy sax-and-clarinet squealing on the outro. His voice is fairly naked, without the prismatic choirs and processing that branded his 2014 breakout “Talk Is Cheap.” Like the rest of the LP, it’s an attempt to balance old-school soul humanism and new school r&b earworming that sometimes succeeds. It’s pretty interesting even when it doesn’t.
Credit rangy co-producer and co-writer Dave Harrington, whose proggy outfit Darkside, a collaboration with techno abstractionist Nicolas Jaar, is the sort of EDM that might appeal to Pink Floyd fans. Harrington shares with Murphy a polyglot attitude towards analog and digital sounds. See “Harry Take Drugs on the Weekend,” the set’s most striking song, a character sketch that’s a formal departure for Murphy — a tale involving terrorism, lovers, and the notion of self-medication as a reasonable response to a mad world. Amidst synth clouds, strings and warped horns, you hear lonely handclaps, and the squeak of calloused fingers moving across the wound strings of a bass guitar. “Never No,” another standout, is propulsive synth-pop with a straightforward kit-drum rock pulse. Murphy repeatedly blurts out “fuck I love you” between wild howls and gasps for breath against somber, hypnotically-layered brass. The spectacle suggests a guy desperate to secure a relationship with a lover, and maybe one with fans as well. “Save us,” he pleads at one point before the arena-scaled outburst, “from ourselves.”
Other songs are less distinct. You can imagine “Dangerous” sung by any number of 2019 pop singers, as Murphy addresses a fellow celeb’s radio success, Taylor-style. “Novocain and Coca Cola” continues a Murphy tradition of songs named for drug pairings (“Cigarettes and Chocolate,” “Cigarettes & Loneliness”); this one is a hypnotic falsetto ballad in a Bon Iver vein, with electronic cicada drones and a nursery-rhyme lope. “Some kind of wasted, baby/ Like eenie meenie minie mo,” he purrs, a more warm and fuzzy Weeknd.
The set ends with Murphy in more uncharted territory. The murmured “Message You At Midnight” rides a pulsing, minimalist string arrangement and soul-jazz bass lines. It’s a sad, gorgeous track. Cheekily, “Believe (Me)” begins with a distinctly Chet Baker vibe: a trumpet tone, piano, and a similarly fragile vocal. But then it pivots into a chilling bit of processed vocalizing and bass drone that yanks us back to the chilly, electronically-mediated present. Murphy doesn’t try to resolve these two elements. And if the song leaves you feeling uneasy and a little unsatisfied, it’s fitting from a guy who seems to do his best work in that state.