In its Jan. 31, 1974 issue, Rolling Stone marked the arrival of Elliott Murphy’s debut album, Aquashow, with a rave review that filled the equivalent of a full magazine page. Critic Paul Nelson talked about “Murphy’s magic,” said his songs are “about something that touches us all” and proclaimed the album-closing “Don’t Go Away” to be “one of the most beautiful” love songs in popular music. A review of Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant second album, which followed the Murphy critique in the issue, contained somewhat less laudatory prose and garnered far less space.
Some 35 years later, of course, Bruce Springsteen is (quite deservedly) a huge star. As for Murphy—who, incidentally, has performed with Springsteen onstage and in the studio—he is arguably less known by the masses today than he was in 1974.
What happened? Beats me. Maybe Murphy’s fate has had something to do with the fact that he has lived in Paris for 20 years and tours the States only sporadically. Or maybe fame has a lot to do with luck. In any event, the good news is that Murphy has never lost his passion for rock and roll and has never stopped experimenting and growing musically. He has released more than 30 albums since Aquashow (I lost count of the exact number a few decades ago) and for the most part, he just keeps getting better.
His terrific latest album, Notes from Underground, is a case in point. The music is magnificent—loaded with irresistible hooks, expressive vocals, and ringing guitars. As always, guitarist Olivier Durand, keyboardist Kenny Margolis and the rest of the backup crew are a major plus. And while Murphy is a guy who never forgets that, above all, rock and roll should sound great, this CD also underscores how much he loves language. He’s still writing terrific love songs (“Ophelia”) as well as rock anthems (“And General Robert E. Lee”) and he still has his sense of humor (“What’s That”). But the kid who once wrote about escaping from suburbia and teenage love is now 59, and his songs evidence more wisdom and different priorities. His voice is better than ever, too; and he really sounds like he’s singing from the heart here.
Notes from Underground, in other words, is one of Murphy’s best. And that’s saying plenty.