If like me, you are ambivalent (at best) about Mumford and Sons’ brand of plinky plonky low-stakes festival anthemry, you may press play on frontman Marcus Mumford’s first solo album and expect little to move you, perhaps a couple of things to make fun of and not much to really love.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss this record as a vanity project. Self-titled is a devastating listen from its very first moments. On “Cannibal”, Mumford confronts the fact that he was abused as a child and the resulting trauma that has rippled through his life. “I can still taste you and I hate it,” are his opening lines, sung gently but with a palpable hatred, “That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it.” Softly picked with a haunting Theremin sigh deep in the mix, he sings with raw honesty about how he has been affected. Its follower, “Grace”, asks “Well, how should we proceed?”, written after his mother first heard “Cannibal” and found out what he had been through. It’s a question for the record as well as his mother: How should we proceed from here?
Well, we delve still further into pain: Mumford sings of his struggles with addiction and of his road to healing, the work he’s done to reach a place of tentative optimism for his body, his mind, his sense of self. “Better Off High” is musically familiar ground for Mumford – shouty choruses and a solid use of a crescendo to remind you that you’re meant to be feeling something. The harmonies on “Dangerous Game” (with a perfect guest vocal from Clairo) are beautifully soft with a threatening edge.
The guests are complementary and thoughtfully chosen throughout: Mumford sings with Brandi Carlisle on the brightening closer “How” and Phoebe Bridgers on “Stonecatcher” which dips in and out of ghostly dissonance, the female energy bringing a kind of strength and belonging that his voice alone would not have telegraphed. There is pain here – lots of pain – but there is also healing. You leave the record with a sense that everything is going to be okay: but the journey to get there is not easily forgotten.
Songs to stream: Dangerous Game, Stonecatcher, Cannibal, Better off High
Hold The Girl
Poor treatment and abuse are also cornerstones of Rina Sawayama’s second full-length record, Hold The Girl. Her first album released in 2020 dealt with the 32-year-old NME-award winning Japanese-British singer’s inherited trauma and of discovering what home and family are to her: this record sifts through the actions of others that have broken and remade her into who she is now. There are moments of high-camp pop drama (“This Hell”) and mournful anger (“Minor Feelings”), and question marks hang over everything in between.
Slick though this record undeniably is, it is like a lacquered over mosaic of musical styles and crackling ideas that don’t always work. It’s fun to hear whinnying horses and breaks to channel Y2K icons, a kind of fun that has been ignored by mainstream pop for a while.
But to quote a 90s icon, Hold The Girl is a bit of a Monet. From a distance, the songs are often affecting or generally make for a good soundtrack to a big night out: but zoom in and you’ll notice more mess. Like someone recovering from major pain, she seems to have too much tumbling from her to make proper sense and the manic energy of this album is exhausting. Every single idea has been stuffed into it and you can almost feel Sawayama racing through songs in order not to leave a single thing out.
At what point do we stop referencing and start being simply derivative? Sawayama has long drawn inspiration from trashy 90s pop and disparate Y2K trends (even nu-metal got an outing on Sawayama; Hold The Girl has “Your Age”, a song of which Fred Durst would be proud) but it leaves me wondering what is actually her own. “Imagination” is a mess of 00s dance-pop, “Holy” is a Gaga-esque unpicking of the ways in which people we think love us can gaslight us into believing the very worst of ourselves. “Hurricanes” sounds like two songs playing at once.
But what Sawayama has always done wonderfully is marry theatricality with real emotion and she hasn’t lost that touch: her vocals on “Phantom” almost make me cry when she spirals her way up to the line “I don’t want to do this without you”. The title song is a reverent promise to care forever; “Catch Me In The Air” is a Disney–style love song slash pop punk ballad to the mother-daughter relationship. There are startling moments of raw and honest beauty but there’s also a lot to wade through to get there. Rina Sawayama is still one of our most exciting artists: brash, brave and full of ideas. But as Hold the Girl proves, those ideas don’t all have to come at once.
Songs to stream: To Be Alive, Phantom, This Hell, Your Age