“I must be some great feeler,” Katie Gavin sings with a wink on MUNA’s latest record. “I must be really deep.” On Saves the World, MUNA’s second effort, the L.A. trio builds upon the thoughtful electro-pop-rock they began sculpting on their 2017 debut, navigating weighty topics like addiction, alienation and romantic abjection with spry sing-alongs and crisp choruses that can mask the heaviness of the material at hand.
Comprising lead vocalist Katie Gavin, guitarist Josette Maskin and multi-instrumentalist Naomi McPherson, MUNA establish their mastery of pop songcraft on this follow-up collection, alternating between singer-songwriter character sketches (“It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby”), thumping self-love pep talks (“Number One Fan”), and 70’s A.M. melancholy (“Navy Blue”). The songwriting is concise and clever, occasionally hyper specific (Saves the World contains what is surely the first electro-pop shoutout to Marxist theorist Frantz Fanon) but, somehow, never overly precious: “I don’t know if I like songs/I think maybe I was wrong,” Gavin sings with a distinct rhythmic phrasing halfway through the record, “To think I could make it hurt less with a chorus sing-along.”
Much like Lana Del Rey’s recent opus Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Saves the World can play as a survey course in the deep California blues, populated by lonesome Pacific Coast Highway joyrides, psychic healers and vapid art exhibits. Unlike Lana’s latest, the melancholy and righteous anger running through these tales of toxic gropers and abrupt ghosters often often run counter to the music itself. The basic sonic template–a muscular Carly Rae Jepsen-meets-Fleetwood Mac electro-power pop–runs through both the ballads and the bangers and bears more than a little resemblance to MUNA’s SoCal peers Haim.
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Saves the World isn’t self-aware so much as frighteningly emotionally intelligent. The sensitive feelers that populate the group’s sadsack pop tales are sharp analyzers of the behavior around them, as quick to deftly psychoanalyze (see the devastating second verse of “Taken”) as they are to simply point the finger at themselves. “Thinking with my heart” is how Katie Gavin puts it, and, despite their best intentions, such emotional intuitiveness tends to get these characters in trouble. Much of the record’s tension comes when MUNA’s heart-on-sleeve romantics fall for drifters who simply can’t keep up.
“So, I let it happen again,” Gavin shrugs on “Pink Light,” “I loved someone who’s indifferent.”
Later on, the band turn down the synth knobs for “Memento,” a quiet two-minute vignette that finds Gavin spinning an anecdote about a bee-sting into an allegory about the way the past informs the present, the way trauma and pain can persist long after their sources vanish.
“Something ‘bout the way I had to pull it out/Never healed quite right and now I got a scar,” Gavin muses. But that’s just the set-up for the payoff on the very next line, one that gets at the heart of Saves the World, an album about what it means to learn from those scars and turn them into something worth celebrating, something worth dancing off: “I’m glad it left a mark.”