At the heart of the best pop music, two straining forces continually tug-of-war for domination: upbeat escapism pitted against bleak, heart-wrenching sadness. Think of the shattered glass and isolation that surges through Robyn’s flawless ‘Dancing On My Own’ as a textbook example. Or indeed turn back to the fragility of Muna’s own bittersweet anthem ‘I Know A Place’, taken from their debut record. Fleeing to a safe retreat for those who have been left bruised and hurt by the world outside, their utopia feels painfully temporary. Even as it pulses and glimmers in a celebration of finding power in togetherness, the danger of weapon-wielding bigotry lingers around the fringes like an ominous shadow.
If ‘About U’ was often a record about the strength of forming connections, its successor turns the mirror around 180 degrees. Though there are plenty of heartbreak sad-bangers to be found here, it’s mostly viewed from the perspective of an inward-looking ‘me’ who has been left behind. ‘Saves the World’ is constantly trying to figure out how to exist as an individual entity again. Boundaries are slippery and shifting, and mistakes are inevitably made. ‘Stay Away’ locks itself up in a bedroom to try and prevent a toxic chain of events: drinking, driving, turning out the lights, and “playing your song” are all out of the question. “Actually now that I’m thinking about it,” Katie Gavin reflects. “I did most things, to get to you.”
Often ‘Saves the World’ is brutal in its specificity – with devastating effects. ‘Pink Light’ fixates on a shard of rosy sunlight that pours into an apartment through the window as its protagonist sleeps in late. She wonders if her story might’ve gone differently, if only a recently departed lover had stuck around in the morning long enough to share in the blushing rays – instead, it’s implied that they made a hastily indifferent exit. “It comes mid-morning as a reminder that at the right time / In the right surroundings, I will be lovely,” Gavin sings, left alone in bed. And the pulsing ‘Memento’ details a bee sting picked up on the way home from an ex’s house. “I’m glad it left a mark,” she explains through thick autotune. ‘Good News (Ya-Ya Song)’, meanwhile, hits on a peppy stride that recalls shades of B*witched and Alanis Morrisette at her most angst-ridden.
Saves the World’s epic six-minute closer charts Gavin’s personal journey over the last few years, ping-ponging between New York, LA and her aunt’s house – flirting with casual sex, communism and Robert M. Pirsig’s philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance along the way. “You’re gonna cut off your hair with dull scissors from the desk in your dorm room,” she sings prophetically. “Learn by trial and error that threesomes are more sad than fun.”
And amid all this darkness and self-reflection, Muna glitters and whirls melodically, euphoria crashing in waves. Patching up a broken heart and carrying on can feel like a superhero-sized mission: an impossibility on par with saving the world single-handedly. And yet, at the heart of ‘Saves the World’ – particularly in moments such as ‘Number One Fan’ – there’s a bright glint of hopefulness that it can be done, a quiet voice whispering that it’s gonna be OK.