Uly: 1822.demos

The stylistic son of Sly StoneBootsy Collins, and Maxwell, rising funkster Uly (né Rafino Murphy) invokes the progressive soul music of ‘70s fusion mavericks and their ‘90s neo-soul cubs. His vintage vision includes soft guitar licks, soulful trumpet play, basslines turned right up, snare drums that hit dry and hard, and a falsetto that would make D’Angelo’s heart flutter. These velvety tunes, with all their nostalgic production goodness, feel like placing a grainy, desaturated Instagram filter onto your field of vision.

The Irish-Filipino singer and multi-instrumentalist, who is based in Dublin, has recently made an impression thanks to placements in the popular TV adaptations of two Sally Rooney novels, Normal People and Conversations With Friends. The extra attention follows his work in the alt-jazz trio INNRSPACE, close collaborations with the rapper Nealo, and a series of short-form solo releases, including the 2020 EP if you were a day, you’d be sunday (songs to go walking to), plus a slew of singles and loosies. The title of his latest release, 1822.demos, suggests something half-baked, like a bunch of unloved WAV files sitting on his desktop. But at 12 tracks, this is both Uly’s longest and most fully-formed project yet—a more complete glimpse at his R&B alchemy.

The project begins with an immersion into Uly’s kaleidoscopic universe, putting his eclectic sensibility on full display. “king smooch returns (pt. I-III)” chronicles a smooth loverman’s return to an old part of town a decade after his disappearance. The song is split into three consecutive arrangements, each distinct: First, there is a blast of salacious funk, then a head-bobbing beat, and finally, a dusky slice of lounge jazz distinguished by Uly’s supple horn, which boasts the sleek aura of French nouvelle vague cinema. Mostly, 1822.demos is tender and romantic. “cold mountain air” is an intoxicating, dimly lit ballad. Uly’s voice is warm and conversational, as though he’s making pillow talk under the glow of lava lamps; a massive guitar solo towards the end of the track sends it skyward, recalling Prince’s “Shhhh” in particular. Uly isn’t a straight-up retro revivalist, though: “tryin’” contorts vocals and piano loop into a hip-hop instrumental that would appeal to the odd proclivities of New York rapper MIKE.

The music has a psychotropic streak that complements Uly’s existential queries. “Lately I’ve been thinking about the stars/And how I’ll never get to reach them,” he repeats on “white dog.” The single “emperor’s new groove (for klara)” re-envisions Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun, with Uly adopting the perspective of a sentient android that tries to grasp human conceptions of compassion and love. “Just one minute, I can feel something surging through my body,” he sings, the wondrous sense of new, ineffable emotions swirling in his spider web-delicate voice. Then there’s “slow waltz on the moon,” a duet with singer Chi Chi. It depicts two astronaut lovers trapped in the emptiness of space, knowing that being physically intimate would mean their death. With its soothing melodies, spacious piano chords, and a distant electric guitar, you can almost picture the couple looking into each other’s eyes through the visors of their pressurized helmets, slowly spinning hand-in-hand in grand circles on the lunar hemisphere. 

The connection between 1822.demos’ impressionistic psych instrumentation and sci-fi lyrics is a striking departure from the archetypal subject matter you find in soul music. Here, Uly is synthesizing his broad stylistic influences into a cohesive vision. 1822.demos is an elegant, cosmic collection that buttons up the first phase of his solo career. Anyone searching for old spirits—especially the kind dedicated to bygone eras of funk and soul—can get behind him. Uly may be a child of the greatest traditions, but he’s also etching out his own corner.