With their debut album, About U, MUNA creates a record that’s undoubtedly going to stick around for awhile and be on plenty of year-end lists—and which is undoubtedly one of the first great records of 2017.
MUNA is a three piece band consisting of singer Katie Gavin, guitarist Josette Maskin, and guitarist Naomi McPherson. The group has released singles and EPs before, but About U marks their first album length release. It’s tough to nail the album down to one specific genre. Songs like “Around U” and “Crying On the Bathroom Floor” have a synthpop sound, pairing glimmering synths and guitars with Gavin’s emotive vocals. In contrast, songs like “Winterbreak” and “If U Love Me Now” push back against synthpop stylings, instead creating a more dreamy and less polished sound, with a heavy use of vocal manipulations. Those songs might be described as “dark pop”, music journalism’s favorite label for any sort of pop music that they don’t want to admit is pop music.
This only shows just how transgressive MUNA is. The entire album draws upon conventional pop stylings but is also willing to delve into different directions. Despite pulling from multiple genres, the album sounds UNIFIED. There’s no song that sticks out like a sore thumb: even though “Winterbreak” is fairly different from “Crying On the Bathroom Floor,” they still sound like they could conceivably be on the same album. And occasionally, such as songs like “End of Desire”, the stylings mix together to create a beautiful whole.
MUNA is unapologetically themselves. This is especially shown in the song “Loudspeaker,” written about the extremes of being human. “Loudspeaker” is very much a ‘be yourself’ song but it embraces all aspects of yourself: “If I feel like crying I won’t hide it / I am a loudspeaker,” Gavin sings. Don’t shut up, broadcast your emotions, you do not have to be silenced. This song is exceedingly apt for 2017, a time when the current political climate pushes more and more people to have their voices heard and make people listen.
Likewise, MUNA are unapologetically queer. All three members identify as queer and take specific care not to have gendered pronouns describing people in their songs. This is pretty damn important: just a glimpse of the current Hot 100 shows a long litany of love songs that fall into the gender binary. Pop music is wide and expansive enough for that gendered and not-gendered music could (and should) sit side by side. Despite the songwriting challenges posed by trying to stay away from gendered cliches, the lyrics never feel vague or half-assed. With a song like the beautifully haunting “Everything”, MUNA manage to describe the ins and outs of a relationship without telling you a thing about the physical description of the other half.
Even if you take out all the other songs, About U would still be making headlines and drawing attention due to the sheer perfection of the single “I Know a Place.” Originally written to celebrate the 2015 American marriage equality ruling, “I Know a Place” describes a utopia of acceptance, yearning, hopeful, and drastically sad at the same time. As she sings about this optimistic place, Gavin’s unsteady vocals emphasize just how hard it was to get here, wavering with each word. You hear the vocal strain on that last bridge, which just makes the line “even if it’s only in my imagination” that much potent. She knows this place but it might not physically exist.
The backing vocals perfectly compliment Gavin’s vocals, whether supporting the main vocal line with ‘oohs’ and ‘yeahs’, adding in harmony, or, in the star moments of the song, when everybody sings in unison. Those moments when the entire group sings “don’t you be afraid of love and affection” are easily the best part of the song. It all ties together wonderfully in a pushing, pulsing, optimistic package that’s just downright FUN. Much has been said about the dourness of 2016 and how depressing the general trend of pop music seemed to be but with “I Know a Place,” and with About U as a whole, MUNA brings brightness, love, and just damn good pop music to the start of the year. Let’s hope it sets a trend.