The first time I ever heard a song by Nick Murphy, who at the time was better known as Chet Faker, I was in a trendy accessories store in Bedok Mall. Amidst a slew of Calvin Harris twangs and Carlie Rae Jepsen squeals, I heard those half-formed staccato ‘hoots’ from Chet Faker’s track with Flume, Drop the Game. What instantly struck me was that he took just enough elements from the Billboard Top 100 songs you would never admit you actually like, and almost seamlessly incorporated the wistful nostalgia so immensely prevalent in anthems of the indie scene to create something everyone could talk about.
In short, his music formed a common ground emerging from both the speakers of Bedok Mall and the speakers of Cloud Stage at Laneway Music Festival in 2015, without sounding completely out of place in either situations.
But when Chet Faker brought his act to Laneway Music Festival in 2017, things were remarkably different. He wasn’t called Chet Faker, for one. He’d become Nick Murphy, taking back his birth name with the adamant force of someone claiming his birthright. A few months prior, he uploaded a black square to all his social media profiles announcing the start of something new. It’s not unusual for artists to drop a persona and adopt a new one; what’s unusual is to do it merely five years into your career just as it is on its way to mainstream success. Perhaps dodging the mainstream was precisely the point – but with his lacklustre new music, it’s hard to see if there is a point to this transformation to begin with.
It started out alriiiight. Fear Less, the first track Murphy released, wasn’t bad, but it would have been alright if it remained a Chet Faker song. The question I find myself asking when it comes to Nick Murphy is ‘would this have been any different if he was still Chet Faker?’
I’d say so but not different enough to be unrecognisable, thus warranting a new identity. After all, sometimes the beauty (and disappointment) of tracking a musician’s career is in seeing how time has evolved their craft. If you kill an identity and birth a new one, you’re pretty much starting from ground zero.
The long-awaited EP, Missing Link, arrived. To my mind, Nick Murphy’s choice to collaborate with Kaytranada for his opening track is a tricky one. It’s not so much of a tricky choice for Chet Faker, in fact it’s probably a really good one. But if you’re releasing your first EP under an “evolved” moniker, having the opening track be a collaboration with a well-established artist screams ‘identity crisis’. The rest of the EP followed suit with ambiguity and by the end of the 22 minutes, you remain in the dark about what his new and improved artistic intentions are in the first place. Everything about the EP feels like an overdetermined ‘re-branding’ effort; from the awkward mishmash of bass-heavy pop rock with psychedelic synth, to song titles such as Forget About Me, I’m Ready, and Bye. The EP had the makings of a statement. What it missed out on is the statement itself.
There was a peaceful nothingness to Chet Faker, but that is not to say he was bland or lacking in something, but rather the ghostly-distorted-fuzzy-jazzy thing to his music was always just enough to let you imagine the rest. Instead of a song, he’d give you suggestions of a song, so that listening to his music almost felt like collaborating with him – hearing what he has to give you, and forming your own response as a listener. It’s no wonder then that tracks like Lesson in Patience and No Advice (Airport Version) remain some of my favourites from him.
At the end of the day though, I wouldn’t write Nick Murphy off, and nobody should. Perhaps this identity rebranding is also a suggestion that Murphy needs to feed off of his audience to see where to go next. A friend of mine has a theory that maybe Murphy just wants freedom. Maybe he dropped the Chet Faker game to give himself room to breathe. Maybe so. At the very least, I hope by the time an album rolls out, we finally see a cohesive artistic identity – even if it is one we don’t end up liking.