Friday, September 6, 2019

Review: Saves the World • MUNA

It seems Katie Gavin doesn't know if she's made it – or if she deserves to have made it. "I don't know if I like love; I think I've had enough. I don't know if I like songs; I think that maybe I was wrong," she sings on "Never," a depressive episode encapsulated in an enthralling dance track. It may seem like a counterintuitive cut to position at the nucleus of MUNA's sophomore record – a record that the alternative pop trio was bold enough to title Saves the World – but at the core of every rescue mission, there must be turmoil. And if there's one thing that Gavin and her bandmates, instrumentalists Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson, know best, it's that exact subject.

Two years after the release of About U, a beautiful portrait of a conflicted Gavin caught in reflection, MUNA still explores similar ideas, and their variant of cool synthpop is still committed to a strangely successful marriage to warmer acoustic rock... but this time, they go harder. Any former banger-producing potential is actualized on Saves the World. In an ideal alternative universe, lead single "Number One Fan" was the inescapable song of the summer: With each listen, its gulped melody and gnarly guitar loop beg to start another intense hairbrush sing-along in front of a full-length mirror. On "Hands Off," Gavin's melody mimics the guitars beneath her as they clash against the grinding bass line – a relentless sonic melee that matches Gavin's persistence against a toxic past partner. 

When doubt or weakness enter the conversation, they are expressed with just as much intensity. "So I don't see my old friends; I don’t go dancing; I don't do most things I used to do. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I did most things to get to you," Gavin concludes after retracing the steps of a typical Friday night out on "Stayaway," which boasts some incredible cause-and-effect storytelling and increasingly pleading choruses. "Who" cracks wide open like any classic slow burn; guitars echo at the track's foundation while Gavin demands to know the subject of her ex's new love songs. And on the sweeping, guitar-driven "Taken," she admits regret for decimating a couple's relationship: "I just thought that if I could take you from her, maybe then it would prove that I’m worth something."

The record's greatness could originate in the chemistry between Gavin, Maskin, and McPherson. Often rippled like water with digital texture, Gavin's voice is throaty but not overpowering. She melds her fine-tuned instrument to respond to the flow of her friends' guitars and synthesizers – an ability displayed best when she leans into the "Navy Blue" pre-chorus and works with the heavy instrumentation on "Number One Fan." However, there's also something to be said about the band's willingness to share their own growth: Gavin is at her most blunt on the record's six-minute finale, "It's Gonna Be Okay, Baby." In the retrospective letter, she ensures her younger self that she'll survive queer realization, some suicidal thoughts and a bit of communism.

As the meeting place for the band's self-awareness, sharpened songwriting, and upfront narration, Saves the World is a brilliant call for personal recovery that leads by example. As MUNA jams out, they stretch from consuming heartbreak ("Who," "Navy Blue") to nonchalant relaxation ("Good News (Ya-Ya Song)," an early '00s rock-chick nostalgia blast). Although it seems the record's flamboyant title doesn't mean to refer to the literal globe, Saves the World does seem to have been an outlet to heal aspects of the band's personal universe. And perhaps if more folks were to confront their doubts and patch up their wounds in this fashion, maybe – just maybe – we could all move together toward saving the world at the large.

Saves the World is available now under RCA Records.

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