Marcus Mumford, Self-Titled, ★★★★☆
This is a brave album from Marcus Mumford. Its extraordinary opening song, Cannibal, lifts the lid on themes of abuse, trauma and forgiveness with mesmerising understatement.
Backed by an acoustic guitar and the thin, high note of a keyboard, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter’s resonant voice recollects a sexual encounter with whispering intensity, the bombshell of the song’s contents shattering the gentle surface of its delivery. “I can still taste you and I hate it/That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it,” is a brutal opening couplet. The awful metaphor of being devoured against your will is driven home by the savage rhyme of “cannibal” with “you f---ing animal”. The bitterness lands like a punch.
Self-Titled is the solo debut from the drummer and singer of English folk-rock ensemble, Mumford & Sons. Although often disparaged by UK music critics suspicious of their upper middle-class backgrounds and archaic fashion style, the group’s passionate performances and anthemic singalong songcraft quickly carried them to global superstardom with the release of their debut album, Sigh No More, in 2009.
The son of Christian evangelists, Mumford is unfailingly polite in public, and charismatic on stage. Since 2012, he has been married to his childhood friend, actress Carey Mulligan. They have two children and live on a farm in Somerset. He may have the appearance of someone who has it all. His solo album, however, cuts through such assumptions, addressing the darkest parts of his life and psyche, singing without equivocation about childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath of guilt and addiction.
Prior Warning finds Mumford confessing failings to his most beloved, admitting: “I’m running out of parts that I can play/Not the hero, not the dodger, not the preacher’s son,” while the music weaves around him in a cascade of distorting analogue instruments that seem to appear to echo his discombobulated mental state.
Only Child finds him apologising with delicate sincerity for transgressions, to a tune that evokes an ancient, mournful mountain ballad. “Where is all the mercy that was promised us?” he wonders on Stonecatcher, widening the circle of pain to include everyone caught up in abuse.
Self-Titled is not, however, an abrasive or challenging album. The beauty here is that music is being used as a vehicle of transformation; each of these songs feels as much like a prayer as a confession. It has been produced by US guitarist Blake Mills, whose gift for warping the sound of acoustic instruments has helped shape work by Perfume Genius and Alabama Shakes. On several tracks, Americana singers including Phoebe Bridgers and Brandi Carlile help soften Mumford’s gritty vocal tone.
While the sound sometimes swells to an epic rush that pushes Mumford up to the top of his register, the tone of Self-Titled is more intimate than anything in his catalogue so far. At times, it verges towards underpowered, and not every song achieves transcendence. But when it lands a blow, you know that you’ve been hit. On the tender closing song, How, he revisits the theme of Cannibal to offer uncomfortable benediction to his transgressor, wondering “what was done to you/To give you such a taste for flesh”.
We often hear of artists wrestling their demons. This is an album in which Mumford embraces and forgives his own, to deeply moving effect. Neil McCormick
Rina Sawayama, Hold The Girl ★★★★☆
Rina Sawayama is pop music’s Dr Frankenstein, splicing genres to lightning effect. Hold The Girl, the British-Japanese artist’s ultra-charged second album (which even contains a song called Frankenstein), strikes a balance between experimental alchemy and mainstream pop. With super-producers Stuart Price and Paul Epworth as her laboratory assistants, she summons the spirit of Lady Gaga and Britney as well as outliers Marina and Charli XCX.
Like Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, Sawayama arrived relatively late to music success. She was 30 when she released her 2020 debut album Sawayama, which melded pop with nu-metal to critical acclaim. Hold The Girl consists of equally clashing parts — the title track alone features sinewy 2000s r’n’b, breakbeats, and piano house — supplied with regular doses of camp: key changes, melismas, and musical theatre-sized emotion.
Her genetic experiments frequently produce gold. Hell seems like a fun place on This Hell, with its queer pluck and opening invocation of Shania Twain: “Let’s go girls!” Sawayama swoops from pan pipes to pop punk on Catch Me in the Air, and bolts together bhangra and nu-metal on Your Age.
Behind the chemical crackles, though, lurk weightier topics. The pansexual singer was raised in London by her Japanese single mother, and opener Minor Feelings counts the cost of micro-aggressions, whether racist, sexist, or homophobic. And though Sawayama remains quiet on detail, it doesn’t take a genius to interpret Your Age. “Now that I’m your age I just can’t imagine / Why did you do it, what the hell were you thinking?” she sings. “You f***ed up my life.”
The more conventional songs radiate power too, from straightforward pop-rock anthem Hurricanes to the electronic thud of Holy — her It’s A Sin moment. The album’s final three tracks feel superfluous, but Sawayama ultimately succeeds where Dr Frankenstein failed: her creation greater than the sum of its parts. Kate French-Morris
Death Cab For Cutie, Asphalt Meadows ★★★★☆
After 25 years together and 10 studio albums, nobody would have blamed Death Cab For Cutie if they had opted to phone it in and just rehash a few greatest hits for their anniversary outing. But with Asphalt Meadows we find a band who are more than happy to tackle tough subjects of life, love, addiction and mental health. It's a record that proves Death Cab are still at the top of their game.
Fans eager to reminisce will love album opener I Don't Know How I Survive, as it blends dark lyrics with a guitar riff that wouldn't go amiss in an angsty mid-noughties teen rom-com. Frontman Ben Gibbard works his magic with lyrics that speak of a panic attack in the middle of the night; pacing around a room and trying to hold on.
There's vitriol lurking beneath the surface in many of the songs that at first listen are pleasingly woozy. Dig a little deeper and layers of meaning unfurl, from anger towards politicians to Gibbard’s own anger towards himself for the “alcohol that made me cruel”.
A surprising change of pace comes with the commanding spoken-word Foxglove Through The Clearcut, a song which started life as an instrumental back in 1998. It resurfaced during the pandemic after the frontman revisited old songs to see what could come to life through the lens of experience. It's the ultimate way of honouring the band they were some 25 years ago, without trying to be something they're not. Spoken word might have some fans recoiling at first listen, but it's a hard-hitting piece that opens the door for the catchy Pepper.
Oddly enough, Pepper is a song that you could almost hear Taylor Swift covering, with just the right amount of melancholy hooks that weave together steadily before the misanthropic rock of I Miss Strangers arrives like a slap in the face. Death Cab are back with a bang and a new-found self-assurance. Jen Thomas
Noah Cyrus, The Hardest Part ★★★★☆
The Cyrus clan’s youngest has flown the nest. Done dwelling in the shadow of dynamo Miley’s bright “sunshine”, as she puts it, 22-year-old Noah has voiced her struggles growing up in a famous family and is getting on with proving she’s not just the sum of her celebrity relatives with her dark-country debut, The Hardest Part.
With a sense of waking up after a blackout – coming through addiction, rotten relationships – it’s tranquil morning music liberally splashed with lush acoustic fingerpicking. A sweet, uplifting sound underpins Cyrus’s Kim-K-meets-Kate-Bush aesthetic.
At angsty Gen Z frequency (tongue-in-cheek, Cyrus once put her tears up for sale), it’s cool, overcast, analgesic Americana. She is vocally nimble enough to make a run of every line but resists, delivering something close to subdued whisperpop.
There’s a stillness to her – a coping mechanism, according to emo-leaning opener Noah (Stand Still) which dramatically storyboards death and dependency with some unexpected lyrical finesse. Pleasantly passive, folk-spirited jaunt Ready to Go is mercifully one of the few songs to succumb to modern pop’s penchant for a lethargic drawl. It yields to easily-metabolised pill-pop bop Mr Percocet.
Wide awake on wistfully gratifying generic anthem Unfinished, Cyrus sits middle of the road, stretching her vocal cords and basking in the immediacy of her melodies. A thumb-sucking piano waltz follows, threatening to erupt into My Chemical Romance catharsis. Churchy, broken-hearted bluegrass tribute Loretta’s Song mourns the grandmother whose passing prompted Noah to enter recovery and regain control of her arc.
The Hardest Part doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It knows what it is: undisguised, accessible songwriting pulsing with country lifeblood which manages to avoid being swallowed by its own ennui. It’s a privilege not to have to hit upon unique alchemy to break through, nevertheless these hard-fought heart-pourings deserve recognition in their own right. Amanda Nicholls
BLACKPINK, Born Pink ★★★★☆
It’s hard to argue with the idea that American pop music has turned a little staid as of late, as though it’s been suffering a decade-long comedown. “Where are the bangers?!” has become a common complaint and refrain among pop music fans who have grown weary of soar-less, chorus-less, bloodless bops. That might be why k-pop groups, with their chameleonic tendencies and propensity for sugary, maximalist pop, have been met with such affection and fervour from Western audiences since at least the late 2010s.
Indeed, there may be no greater case for k-pop than BLACKPINK, the boundary and border-breaking South Korean bubblegum pop four piece who have become the perfect antidote to a sleepy and narcotised Western pop culture. Remember when pop music was fun? When it didn’t really have to say anything? When it could just be senseless and full of gibberish and zig-ah-zig-ah? That’s the blessed land BLACKPINK is returning us to. They’ve cannibalised every shade of girl group fun and repurposed it for an increasingly, threateningly self-serious world.
On their second album, the group marry the very best of Western pop music – outrageous middle eights, universal emotions, enormous choruses – with a romantic, gleefully chaotic South Korean sensibility. Drawing from a delightful patchwork of influences and sounds – including 90s Bronx hip-hop, Bengalese beats, post-EDM fluff – nothing you’re hearing here is particularly cutting-edge, but it’s delivered with such ebullience and pomposity that you almost forget that this isn’t the first time you’ve heard an 808 beat.
Born Pink is the sound of the biggest girlgroup on the planet: a well-earned superlative. BLACKPINK are serving up the old with the excitement of the new. Emma Madden
Yessie, Jessie Reyez ★★★☆☆
On her second album Yessie the Canadian R&B artist Jessie Reyez sounds as though she’s won a wrestling championship without any training, nor bruises on her body. Her knockout swipe comes early on. “If you died tomorrow, I don’t think I’d cry,” she tells an ex-lover on the album standout Mutual Friend with almost terrifying directness. Then, towards the track’s end, orchestral strings begin to swirl as Reyez bleats like a baby, her voice reaching the album’s highest decibel. It’s the one moment of chaos and precarity in an album full of hushed, stakeless braggadocio.
Reyez sings and intones spoken-word diatribes with a kind of soniferous confidence. It’s a stance that works best on album opener Mood, a track which finds her referencing “old and new friends” over prismatic keys with a Noname-inspired flow; unhurried, untouchable, unconscious.
It’s a mood that’s maintained throughout the record: a persistent coolness and summertime breeziness which is rendered through Mediterranean guitar riffs and vocals that sound like a hummingbird sucking on honey. Reyez is confidently cool, to be sure – the problem here is that she’s all confidence and no frisson, and so the coolness loses its grip early on. Each song sounds like a hazy wind-down; a series of interludes rather than fully fleshed tracks. You find yourself yearning for more of the characterful storytelling of Mutual Friend, the one track on the album which bears the drama and dynamism of a good wrestling match.
In the end, Reyez leaves her listener on the floor, never extending a hand to lift them back up. Emma Madden
Suede, Autofiction ★★★★☆
On their ninth studio album, Britpop progenitors Suede have not simply gone back to their early-Nineties roots but they’ve reached back to the underground indie goth-rock of the previous decade. Autofiction sounds like the kind of broody Eighties guitar bands adored by people who liked wearing oversized magenta paisley shirts and Doc Marten boots almost as much as they disliked any music that dared to enter the singles charts.
Autofiction features the clipped basslines and metronomic drums of Faith-era Cure, the kind of simple plucked guitar riffs favoured by the Pixies, and the effects-drenched synth and guitar lines deployed by The Cult and The Mission as they thrilled the marginal with cod-mysticism and dry ice. Suede tie together these sounds with deliberately claustrophobic and slightly ramshackle production courtesy of long-time collaborator Ed Buller. In place of the complex arrangements, baroque orchestrations and glitchy dreamscapes of Suede’s recent output is unfettered garage rock energy.
This is all deliberate. Suede wanted a reset after a clutch of cerebral albums and a spate of “career retrospective” documentaries and tours. So they hired a rehearsal studio behind Kings Cross station, collected a key and started playing. This back to basics approach was replicated in Suede’s decision to play a gig in a tiny East London venue earlier this month under an assumed name (Crushed Kid). Singer Brett Anderson has said the plan was to make a record that was, to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”. This carries through to Autofiction’s lyrics as well as its music.
It’s so-called because Anderson explores what he calls “the darker side” of being in his fifties, something he says he’s struggled with. Songs like Personality Disorder examine this anxiety. Meanwhile She Still Leads Me On is a song about his late mother. This song and the joyous single 15 Again are about as close to Britpop-era anthems as you’ll get on Autofiction.
Elsewhere, Black Ice opens with a gloriously sleazy bass riff. The stompy That Boy on the Stage could be a companion piece to The Cult’s Big Neon Glitter from 1985, while Shadow Self shares the DNA of The Cure’s A Forest. But Autofiction still manages to sound 100 per cent Suede, which is quite a feat. It’s a fresh, raw and intentionally scruffy album. Unbrushed Suede, if you will. The closing track is called Turn off Your Brain and Yell. Which neatly sums up Autofiction. James Hall
Mura Masa, demon time ★★★☆☆
If Mura Masa’s last album, R.Y.C., was a critically divisive flop, then demon time is his mischievous comeback. Also known as Alexander Crossan, the 26-year-old Grammy-winning producer from Guernsey was the brains behind Love$ick, the 2017 hit with American rapper A$AP Rocky, and is known for club-friendly collaborations with everyone from Nile Rodgers to Wolf Alice. Building on his distinct DIY dance-pop sound, his new, 11-track album features a string of up-and-coming talent sure to seduce the TikTok generation.
Muddying melodies with skewed synths and textured beat loops, demon time hopscotches between R&B, UK garage, hyper-pop, and even cumbia. As a result, the record often feels over-excitable and unfocussed, but is saved by a handful of stand-out club tracks. There’s blessing me, a steamy, trap-heavy single with appearances from British rapper Pa Salieu and dancehall artist Skillibeng. Snappy lyrics are just as effective here as they are on earlier single bbycakes, a sped-up take on an early noughties track with futuristic chipmunk vocals from Shygirl, verses by Lil Uzi Vert, and a gooey bringe rendition from viral sensation PinkPantheress. Up all week follows a similar nostalgic vein, where previous collaborator Slowthai bawls hedonistic lyrics over engine growls and beeping phone sounds in a fun nod to the late 2000s. Chiara Wilkinson
Where the album sags is when Crossan tries to do too much. The softer song e-motions is an odd, meaningless filler, whereas Slomo starts promisingly, but rears into a disjointed mess with indistinguishable vocals.
When Crossan departs from his reliance on plasticky noise, however, he gleams. Take Hollaback Bitch, for example: stripped-back and driven by whispery chants over an old school R&B groove, it feels like an instant club classic. Creative but by no means cohesive, Crossan has clearly enjoyed himself with this album – and not only with the guest appearances. It’s a soundtrack to the ritual of going out: from the pre-drinks to the party, and through the muddled hangover after. Chiara Wilkinson
The Beths, Expert in a Dying Field, ★★★★☆
When somebody leaves, how do you forget the little things you’ve learned? Her favourite song, the way he takes his tea? It’s the most useless kind of knowledge, the kind you can’t document in a handover note, and it’s been eating at Elizabeth Stokes, songwriter and frontwoman of The Beths: “I can close the door on us but the room still exists,” she sings, “[I’m] an expert in a dying field”.
The indie-rock four-piece have had plenty of time to dwell of late. And yet the 12 tracks that make up Expert in a Dying Field are lean and propulsive, with hooks that get under the skin. While equally as comfortable drawing from Sarah Records-esque twee-pop (Your Side) as from a grittier, fuzzier sonic palette (Silence is Golden), the band’s real sweet spot is in bright, hummable choruses, crafted like banishment spells to ward off their lyrical insecurities when played loud and live.
The heartbreak and anxiety captured in the lyrics – partly written in locked down isolation – gave way to sheer joy when the band was reunited in the studio. While the title track is intimate and questioning (“I can burn the evidence but I can’t burn the pain”), the soaring chorus promises communal catharsis. While the narrator of the song Best Left chides herself for picking at that which will only hurt – “some things are best left to rot” – she is not alone, as voices come together to deliver the soaring payoff. The worries captured in I Told You That I Was Afraid are messy, even a little embarrassing, but the giddy, power pop melody means you’re laughing with, not at, Stokes as she falls over for the “millionth time”.
It’s a pact with the listener: this happened to me, and it sucked, and it might have happened to you too, but it does get better – and when it does, it will sound like this. Lisa-Marie Ferla