Some musicians go solo because the limits of their band are holding them back and they intend to make music that makes them even more popular. Harry Styles would fit into this category. Others know that without the armour of the band name, there’s likely to be less interest in their work, but they have something they need to say and sales figures be damned. That’s the case for Marcus Mumford.
The Mumford & Sons frontman’s name doesn’t even appear on the cover of his debut solo album. The brackets and lower case of the title already make it look like he’s apologising for taking up space. And from the very first line of the first song, Cannibal, the listener feels like they’re intruding on a deeply personal moment. “I can still taste you, and I hate it/That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it,” he sings quietly over plucked acoustic notes. It’s a song about sexual abuse he experienced as a six-year-old and has never spoken about in public before. The second song, Grace, is about telling his mother.
It feels like he’s exchanged the baggage of his band for something even heavier. Despite two Grammys and a Glastonbury headlining slot in 2013, Mumford & Sons have been something like a musical equivalent of the Conservative Party, in that they’re clearly extremely popular but at the same time it’s possible to go through life without ever meeting someone who’ll admit to liking them. No doubt processing personal issues is preferable to discussing last year’s departure of guitarist Winston Marshall, who left the group so he could spend more time having controversial political opinions on Twitter.
It’s also freed Mumford from the need to write songs that are capable of being bellowed along to in an arena. Veteran producer Blake Mills and a band of A-list session players have helped to craft a subtle, subdued sound that suits the intimate themes. Dangerous Game has some big guitar but it sits beside ticking melodic percussion and swooning guest vocals from Clairo.
Phoebe Bridgers, Monica Martin and Brandi Carlile also appear, with the latter assisting Mumford towards the concluding lines of the final acoustic ballad, How: “I’ll forgive you now/Release you from all of the blame, I know how.” It’s another brave song that makes for a difficult listen. Regardless of chart position, it sounds like these songs have already served a valuable purpose for their writer.