Saturday, July 02, 2022

Raw Moments Of Catharsis: MUNA’s Self-Titled Third Album

Like an electronic update of classic heartlands rock, MUNA’s self-titled third album is a marriage of gutsy arrangements and confessional lyrical focuses, where floor-filling, abdomen-wobbling kick drums sit flush with each emotive chord change and captivating vocal performance.

There’s nothing diffuse about the music here, however, from verse to chorus to hands-aloft coda, the constituent parts pull together as one cohesive unit. 

Now, 'heartlands rock' might seem like an inapplicable analogue, but it’s worth considering parallels with a Bruce Springsteen, a Grant Lee Buffalo, or a War On Drugs. Both MUNA and these artists convey the sense that they’ve seen some stuff, man, but they’re back baby, and better than ever before. It’s a particularly stark emotional honesty that sits right at the core of this album. Though, if the Boss sings of blue-collar concerns like job loss and dissatisfaction, MUNA hew cultural capital out of more up-to-date subject matter like anxiety, recreational drugs, and loneliness. 

MUNA’s singer - Katie Gavin - sings in such a way amidst the pummeling electro workouts that it’s as if you’re listening, one ear cocked, to a friend pour their heart out in the middle of a packed dance floor. Indeed, with the references to being high, drinking shots, and going out, there’s a sense of in vino veritas. Gavin’s voice - rarely electronically treated, apart from on ‘No Idea’ - provides a very human, natural centrepiece that balances the muscular, electronic arrangements. This organic, human element is reinforced by some pleasingly idiosyncratic phrasing, emotive vocalisations, and a host of so-called vocal distortions like tremolo, bleats, wobbles, and cracks. These, in turn, remind us that we are very much in their emotional headspace, whether sad, worried, nostalgic, or happy. 

Dance music like MUNA’s has this unique way of tapping into the most euphoric emotions possible. On the ace opener ‘Silk Chiffon’, the chorus hook is a falsetto cry of “Silk!” that recalls Caroline Polachek’s tune ‘Pang’, where a delivery turns the meaning of a word into something totally ecstatic and heartfelt. Indeed, the electronic arrangements on this record sound so huge that you feel you can fall back into each muscular bass quake and juddering percussion break. The whole thing glistens, glitters, chugs, and thwacks. On tracks such as ‘Home By Now’, ‘What I Want’, and ‘No Idea’ (co-written with Mitski), the heavy side-chaining and near-claustrophobic production style evokes the contorting bodies on smoke-filled dancefloors of the gay bars about which MUNA sing. 

The quieter moments on the album are also worth discussing. To gloss the album is to put the songs into one of two categories: electro bangers or acoustic guitar-led folky bangers. On songs such as ‘Kind Of Girl’ and ‘Handle Me’ there are hints of Bon Iver’s digital melancholy sketches or the fierce angst of MUNA’s label boss, Phoebe Bridgers. The electronic percussion is still here but more content to flit around the edges, chattering rather than thumping, simmering rather than boiling. This song format comes to a head on the softest cut from the album, the penultimate track ‘Loose Garment’, which deals in ambient-esque soundscapes and a disarmingly gorgeous violin refrain. 

In a revealing interview with Pitchfork, Gavin said “I just wanna help people if they wanna make better choices, but I also wanna help the girlies that just wanna have fun”. 

Though the lyrics are never didactic, they do provide a sense of how to navigate the perils and pleasure of modern life by running the rule over break-ups, moving cities, self-care, and beyond.

Through all this, though, MUNA’s sense of fun is never lost, even in the rawest moments of catharsis.

Will Ainsley


Image: Isaac Schneider 

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