There’s an intimacy to pain that cannot be easily removed, there are fewer more powerful emotions and it’s a feeling that has been the spine of artistic expression going back to the ancient world. With his debut solo album (self-titled), Marcus Mumford (without the Sons), looks to add his name to the vast lists of artists who have called on their pain to create. The pain that devours so much of Mumford and his debut is child sexual abuse, a trauma which he spoke about publicly for the first time in the lead up to the album’s release.
It’s putting it bluntly to say this is an album about abuse but then Mumford approaches his past and his pain with the same plain speaking, confrontational lyricism. From the opening words on the album: “I can still taste you and I hate it / That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it”, Mumford communicates the torture that has stalked him for thirty years and the following ten tracks flip between exorcism of the past and a candid reflection on the man life has made him. There are cracks of fury in his voice that are quite remarkable.
‘Cannibal’ is gripping and intimate, small in scale but enormous in emotion as it’s the song where Mumford lets go of his darkest secret. It’s the type of song you never thought him capable of, given he and his band’s rise to fame as bland, definitionless boppers who needed to put down the banjo. But here, he mostly ventures into the stripped-down folk of Neil Young, Phoebe Bridgers (who features here as a guest) and Joni Mitchell. It’s only towards the end of ‘Cannibal’, when there’s a sudden jolt of all too familiar raucous stadium folk, that you’re taken out of the hypnosis of Mumford living out the lingering sickness that is trauma.
‘Prior Warning’ tells the story of Mumford’s alcoholism and subverts the cliché of hitting rock bottom with its matter-of-fact storytelling and Mumford slurring his voice into a mumble – you can feel the tension in his throat as he seems to be addressing his wife, the actor Carey Mulligan, about his suffering and how he feels he has failed her. With murmurs of hip-hop drums, the song is also about as far away from the mumsy folk pop of Mumford and Sons as it’s possible to get.
Mumford comes full circle to catharsis on album closer ‘How’, which features assistance from the enviable talents of Brandi Carlile. He finds himself granting forgiveness – to his abuser or himself or both, it’s hard to make clear. It’s a sombre, lived in reminder of the mutilation of abuse that lives long after the act has been committed. Here, Mumford is doing his best Matt Berninger impression and mostly gets away with it due to the frank songwriting and conviction in delivery.
The events of the last two and a half years, with so much of it spent in solitude, have forced a lot of us to reckon with ourselves, our pasts and what we want from our futures. Mumford’s time in lockdown saw him bring the darkness of his past to the light, with his mother finding out about the abuse through overhearing the album’s lead single.
(self-titled) does a lot of reaching, there are flirtations with rousing string arrangements that don’t quite work, and the guests (mainly Carlile and Bridgers) are a reminder that others do the confessional folk ballad thing bette. But this is by far the most worthwhile thing Mumford has ever put his name on.
At its best, (self-titled) is a genuinely poignant examination of trauma, the way it warps the soul, the way it stains itself on your skin and refuses to be scrubbed off even after years of trying. When it’s just Mumford, an acoustic six string and his voice, it’s a reminder that less is so much more.
Mumford never needed the poppy razzmatazz to illuminate anything, all he needed was to go deep and find his truth, as painful as it was and continues to be.