Dusk burnishes a blur of glass and metal high-rises as I hurtle through East London on the overground train. I’m curiously scanning the faces of strangers illuminated by the ghoulish, blue light of their smartphones, each one immersed in a digital universe of their own.
A squat, middle-aged man sitting next to me in an expensive suit and Union flag socks is sweating profusely, scoffing at the newspaper he’s clutching. I find myself glancing at the pages and notice, with no surprise, the news is terrible. Particularly terrible. Apparently we’re living in the ultimate Atwood-Bradbury-Huxley-Orwell dystopian collaboration that absolutely no one asked for. A zeitgeist of palpable political unrest, ecological collapse and collective fatigue. Scoffing man, as I have now named him, theatrically turns the page and angles it so acutely I can no longer read it. I’m a nosy little snowflake.
Abstaining from the habit of en-route zombie-scrolling, my mind wanders to this year’s well-intended, yet fickle vacillations. Outside of work, I’ve been a traffic-halting Extinction Rebellion activist, an exasperated social media phantom haunting my millennial echo-chamber and, most recently, a relapsed addict of BBC’s Merlin. There’s just something so soothing about Druids and a blossoming, medieval ‘bromance’ don’t you think?
Despite the sense of, y’know, Earth’s impending slow-motion apocalypse, small mercies reveal themselves as the wheel of the year turns with a yawn. The last dregs of lethargic summer have finally evaporated into crisp Autumn air and, tonight, as I step out onto the thrum of Shoreditch High Street, I feel a familiar pre-gig flutter. I’m here to see MUNA, LA’s genre-defying, queer, all-female trio hailed as the ‘saviours of pop.’ I recall with fondness a photo of them in homemade FUCK TRUMP t-shirts back in 2016 and wonder what else they can save too.
Full disclosure: the morning of its release, I devoured their enticingly-titled second album Saves The World for breakfast and have been swimming in a glittering, existential fog ever since. Banal trips to the supermarket have transformed into professionally produced music videos; lip-syncing with abandon in the special buy aisles whilst customers and staff break out into elaborate choreography with trolleys.
Like many, I’m feeling exasperated from the political three-ring circus, and this album is a powerful tonic. But will it still pack a punch when performed live? The production is ambitious: dazzling synths, roaring electric guitars, Katie Gavin’s searing vocal and bludgeoning electronic beats. Whilst the stage and studio are two undeniably different mediums, it wouldn’t be the first time a sonically elaborate album fails to translate to live audiences, electric-whisked into a blaring, brown paste.
Descending into the beautiful gloom of tonight’s venue, the Village Underground, I wade my way through the teeming crowd and strategically position myself towards the back. I’m sheepishly aware, as ever, that I am essentially the Eiffel Tower of this gig, but I’ll be damned if I’m as static – there are at least four songs that will inevitably trigger involuntary snake hips.
After much anticipation, the lights dissipate and we shuffle excitedly like a waddle of hungry penguins. Amidst the spectral half-light, Naomi, Josette and Katie swagger on stage with an effortless cool reminiscent of the slow-motion nonchalance of 90’s sleeper-hit The Craft.
Number One Fan, the bombastic first single on the new album bursts into life with a thumping beat best saved to exact revenge on your nemesis neighbour. Lyrically, you could easily mistake the opener for superfan verbatim:
“Oh my God, babe / I’m your number one fan / So iconic, like big, like stan. Like, I would give my hand just to hold your hand / I’m your number one fan / I’m your number one / number one fan”
It is, however, a cleverly crafted (if a little gauche) mirror pep talk for those inevitable times of plummeting self confidence. I only wish it existed several years ago when I resorted to home-dying my hair a questionable shade of ‘Cosmic Blue’ over the bath. Reader, I regretted it.
Straight off the bat, MUNA obliterates the concept of the knight in shining armour and challenges us to be our own damn heroes. No one is coming to save us, we must save ourselves. Lead singer, the astonishing Katie Gavin, is the crimson-bobbed heroin made manifest. Yet there’s a disarming, lyrical evolution present in these songs that dismantles the archetype to reveal a devastating honesty beneath. For the next hour and a half, we’re invited to rifle through her diary.
Far earlier than expected, Stayaway, a soaring, glitch-bop warns us against the perils of dipping our toes in the toxic waste of a previous relationship. Here Katie Gavin demonstrates mind-boggling vocal prowess by fusing raw power with extraordinary control. The climax is spine-tingling and leaves the room gawping, applauding long after it ends. Endearingly, Gavin absorbs this moment with heartfelt gratitude. These songs are, quite clearly, inextricable from her lived experience and that courage bleeds beautifully into each utterly committed performance.
As the set progresses, favourites from MUNA’s first album About U are peppered amongst brand new material. If About U was the band’s precocious foreword, Saves The World is the epic novel that follows.
Pink Light, emerging from glinting, fragments of old piano and grooving bass, unfurls as a shimmering lament for a recently departed lover who, in a just world, would have stayed to see the sunrise. It’s MUNA’s songcraft at its best; poetic and unapologetically candid.
Hush falls as a brooding, eighties bassline signifies Never, the explosive, distorted electro-pop anthem worthy of the Wachowski sisters’ Sense8 (may it rest in power). Never might just be this generation’s laser-lit Careless Whisper for the brokenhearted.
It’s with Hands Off, a sucker-punch, torch-song for the #MeToo movement that the crowd are fully mobilised, bodies writhing, hands aloft in collective rebellion. Guitarist Josette Maskin and producer/guitarist Naomi McPherson proceed to head-bang, whirl and dart about, fizzing with charisma. Both are supremely talented musicians and it’s thrilling to see them having what looks like a total riot onstage.
It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby marks MUNA’s final and most profound song. It’s a heart-wrenching letter to a past self charting the turbulence of young adulthood before stepping, at long last into personal power.
“You’re gonna cut off your hair with dull scissors from the desk in your dorm room / Learn by trial and error that threesomes are more sad than fun / You’re gonna move to LA / Guess you’re running away from the patterns you have and the decisions that you’ve made / Yeah, you’re gonna sit in the sun”
As a thunderous applause rounds off a water-tight, commanding set I’m grateful I’ve seen MUNA in such an intimate setting before, inevitably, and deservedly so, they hit the big time.
Pouring out onto the sodium street-lit pavement, it strikes me like a gong that the narrative woven through Saves The World is hiding in plain sight. Despite the maelstrom of global affairs, we must take care to tend to the complexities of interior worlds, too. The peaks and troughs of our personal narratives, however quotidian, are our personal epics and we are the orators. In order to combat the injustices of the world at large we must first be willing to save ourselves.
By Mateo Oxley
Follow Mateo on twitter @MateoOxley and instagram @mateooxley.
MUNA Saves The World is available now and MUNA are currently on tour – for details head to MUNA’s official website.