The opening lines of Marcus Mumford’s solo outing make for a crushing listen. “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 intones on ‘Cannibal’, revealing – for the first time publicly – that he was sexually abused as a child. The album’s emotive second track, ‘Grace’, is about the moment he told his mother. Until hearing her son rehearse ‘Cannibal’ during lockdown, she had no idea what he’d experienced.
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Many of the songs in the album’s first half are sonically sparse – see the downcast fingerpicking on ‘Cannibal’, for example, and the skeletally acoustic ‘Only Child’, which resembles a devastating Paul McCartney ballad in both sound and structure. The solitary strings on ‘Prior Warning’, meanwhile, soundtrack the Mumford & Sons frontman describing the moment he hit rock bottom. Mumford spiralled into alcoholism and a dangerous cycle of self-medication – to the point where his family needed to stage an intervention, as recounted on the album’s most unsettling and experimental track, ‘Better Off High’.
The album soars with optimism too, though, exploring his recovery and journey to healing. ‘Cannibal’ suddenly erupts into a synth and percussion-heavy moment of euphoria, while ‘Grace’ is full of zippy guitars and uplifting instrumentation. ‘Better Angels’ is beautifully layered and awash with trumpeted synths, sounding like the deep sigh of relief you feel when weight of a secret is lifted.
There is a similar feeling of peace to be found via the album’s collaborations – take the gentle folk of the Phoebe Bridgers-featuring ‘Stonecatcher’ and Brandi Carlile’s appearance on stunning album closer ‘How’, which is similarly cathartic. The latter song is an exorcism, as Mumford seemingly addresses his abuser directly: “But I’ll forgive you now / Release you from all the blame / I know how.”
Blake Mills’ production is exquisite throughout what is Mumford’s most crafted studio recording to date; this album is a career-best for the musician. While it is undoubtedly an emotional and often heart-breaking listen, it’s also a record full of defiance, hope and faith. It shows that even after the deepest, most cutting trauma, it’s somehow possible to find peace and begin again. Mumford recently told NME that writing this album “saved” him; it’s likely to help save many others too.
Release date: September 16
Record label: Island Records