Dubliner Stefan Murphy, better known as The Mighty Stef, could hardly have timed the release of his latest single with any more precision. ‘We Want Blood,’ the lead track from his third album TMS & the Baptists, dropped in mid-November, just as Europe and the markets finally called time on the government’s attempted recovery. That it was the Germans who blew the final whistle was only fitting – the album was recorded in Berlin with veteran punk producer Tom Schwoll.
The so-called Baptists are in fact a band drawn from three Dublin bands: Humanzi, Howlin Dowlin and The Last Tycoons. 2008’s 100 Midnights featured a diverse array of styles and genres that worked more often than not, but often the record felt more like a collection of very good songs rather than a very good album. With the benefit of a settled band behind it, TMS & the Baptists has a much more organic feel, and the still-wide range of influences is brought together with minimal fuss.
Seasoned Stefographers will be aware that his music is rarely, if ever, explicitly political so ‘We Want Blood’ (not his use of “we” rather than “I”) comes as a bit of a shock. Despite the provocative title, the song is as much a statement of helplessness and exasperation as it is a call to arms, though the line “let the scarlet red river turn our city into mud” cuts deeply. Somewhat surprisingly, given the times that we live in, ‘We Want Blood’ is the only song of its type on the album, and the remaining eight tracks are more or less what we’ve come to expect from Stef: highly personal, piercingly insightful musings on the human spirit with a solid blues-rock core.
TMS & the Baptists might not the fiery political record it had threatened to be, but it does contain some of Stef’s most sophisticated songwriting to date. ‘John the Baptist (Part 1)’ bristles with a Blonde on Blonde-style enthusiasm. ‘Blood and Whiskey’ heaves and hos with morose accordion and an oom-pa rhythm. ‘Jeffrey Lee Pierce,’ a semi-tribute to the late Gun Club frotman, boasts the sort of burning melody that Tom Waits is prone to pulling out whenever he damn well feels like it, while closer ‘The Harbour Song’ turns the Waits influence into full-blown imitation, with impressive results.
‘John the Baptist (Part 2)’ is the stronger of the twins, a vivid outlaw folk track that sees Stef go it alone with acoustic guitar and a gruff, affected southern United States accent before the Baptists slowly and subtly creep into the mix. Stef sings ruefully, in character, of a motley crew of Texan miscreants, each of whom in turn demands his head on a pike: “Said the good cop to the bad cop after 14 solid hours of beating his young suspect black and blue, ‘Bring me the head of St. John the Baptist or may the Lord shine mercy down on you.’”
It’s a standout moment on the Mighty Stef’s most accomplished record to date and yet another sign that one of Ireland’s most underrated songwriters has properly hit his stride and is unlikely to be slowing down anytime soon.