There are some human hurts that lodge in the soul like shrapnel left behind from a war only one person saw the end of. Any honest soldier knows that no war ever truly ends either, so those who carry the metal marks in their bodies are just the ones with the physical souvenirs of the violence, not remotely the only ones bearing the eternal burden. Nor are all fractious feuds fought on battlegrounds that will be documented for history books. Some of the most destructive are the most small-scale and will never be written about or studied by more than one or two people. Marcus Mumford knows something of this brand of buried bloodshed. What he has chosen to do with that most cold-scalded kind of conflict is one notch up from the most valorous thing any survivor of such secret skirmishes of the spirit can ever do, which is to talk out loud about the events. Mumford has elected to sing out loud about them, and when he did so at The Eastern in Atlanta on October 29th, the remedy he has made out of a particularly rapacious form of rancor in his past was received by all as the heady thrall such a heavenly transaction should always be.
From the first time any of us heard him, Marcus Mumford has perpetually flourished a voice like a mirage painted in fresh dew. Most who know him as fans of Mumford and Sons would attest to using that music and its paramedic passions as mental medicine on the days when simply being alive sandpapers your nerves. Mumford has always been rightly associated with committed musicianship at the highest level, revitalizing genres and instruments that had not made their way to any mainstream stage in far too many moons before his insistent and accomplished reinvigorations. In order to do the kind of music in which Mumford has made his name, you have got to be capable of both soft-pedal grandeur and opulent reserve in equal measure. Though surely nothing could have been easy about the writing of Mumford’s first solo excursion, entitled (self-titled) (QRO review), and the one he is in Atlanta to present on this occasion, a history of creating thrilling reversals at the devil’s own pace must certainly have helped him in the gathering of this material within himself, material that can only be described as a gorgeous corpus of poetic detritus from his life’s hardest harms.
The presentation of (self-titled) in the lowercase and in parentheticals on the album’s cover should likely not be glossed or underweighted by those who wish to take this album in fully. This is a record written from the child in Marcus Mumford, a boy who was not big enough for capital-letter anything but was forced into situations that were undeniably upper case. The brackets that have kept Marcus Mumford the man held in all his life prior to speaking about this barbaric blitz of his boyhood are what is being shrugged off here in these songs. With (self-titled), he is throwing a Semtex brick through those stained windows of a former life no one gets to leave and turning that tussle transcendent in the process.
It can also be no accident that, in its collision course from enmity to empathy to enlightenment, (self-titled) is a wonderland of warrior women. Clairo, Monica Martin, Phoebe Bridgers, and Brandi Carlile all make guest appearances, accompanying and assisting Mumford on his wicked climb through the great wine dynasties left behind in the soul as the stamp of any real suffering. Mumford displays deep wisdom in those choices of choral compatriot, knowing what he would require from the feminine energy in order to successfully walk the wire of the wounds he was pondering, for women too-often know the terrain he was setting out to traverse for the first time almost as their first home. In keeping with the album’s female-scaffolded framework, The A’s, a small supergroup consisting of Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Daughter of Swords, served as his opener support on this tour.
Though his stated aim with this show, and one he executed to symmetric amelioration, was to play (self-titled) live from start to finish, Atlanta’s audience was lavished with much more music than that, the first two instances of which being Mumford and Sons songs he played utterly on his own, alone but for his guitar and us. That the first was “Awake My Soul” is portentous, its famous lyrics, “And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know / My weakness I feel I must finally show,” standing as the most apt prologue imaginable to the prolepsis forthcoming in the unveiling of the new songs. Deliberately following this with “The Cave”, rife with its imagery of meat-eating cannibals, a visual that will quickly show up in a much more visceral, vicious manner on the lead track of the solo record, made for a seamless segue to the (self-titled) song that bears its name. It was as though he was drawing back a caul on the cauterized corner of himself that characterizes the record he was here to perform, and he was utilizing the friendlier faces of familiar standards to do it, thereby also wordlessly signaling to the audience that the man from the band they loved and the boy from the badland he was about to sing from are and should be recognized as the same person.
“Cannibal” is a song that has the sand to talk about the hundred-sided nature of abuse, how it is never so easy as evil, how there is even the quiet relish of it on both sides sometimes, albeit bent to sick angles. These are things other people will not say in songs, or have not done. You could have heard a snake breathing under a pile of leaves when he performed this one, a legion of loving listeners comparing their own lesion-notes within their hearts as they imbibed his sung nostrums to the lowest notes of his life experience. “Grace” did more than converse about the subject of its title; it offered that state of being up fully. It reminded me of being forever moved by the tranquility of Carlos Santana’s face when I watched him being interviewed by Dan Rather on the subject of his own childhood molestation. Santana said, and Mumford’s “Grace” echoed, “Oh, I released that person into the light a long time ago” – and he had angels in his eyes as he said it. Mumford had seraphim in his song as he sang it.
“Better Off High” showcased Mumford’s signature propensity for taking his voice from a gold chanterelle rolling in bramble to a sky-soaring arrowhead of hawks in half a word. He is known for his stunning vocal volte-faces and in this case the tuneful turnabout seems to correspond to the intensification of the pain as he pulls the very hooks the lyrics reference out of his own body via the sound. A song that promotes an understanding that self-medication in certain moments can be just that, getting trolleyed becomes your bus ticket out of the bivouac. Sometimes the drugs are the doctor and you are, as he asserts, “Better off high than dead,” especially when the high is responsible for “that click in your head.” Bless the medicine of a song this even-handed and unvarnished about what is.
By far the most shattering of Mumford’s real-time rendering of the way in which he became the actuary in his own rescue was “Go In Light”. It is one thing to summon the bravery not to be an emotional defector from the damage that has been done to you in life. It is something else entirely to ascend by sheer force of will to a spirito-aerie from which you can release your rapists, be they aggressors of body, brain, or both, into the redemptive spaces through which they might be able to heal themselves. This kind of bare-knuckle heroism hinges on the fundamental understanding that no one can restore you but you, and requires you to be your own paladin. While he has always been princely, Marcus Mumford is to be acknowledged and respected for first knowing which additional armor to put on himself and which to take off in order to achieve the naked barrier that such a mysterious morphology demands. A spare little sparrow of an acoustic affair on the album, “Go In Light” became a Goliath-pour of big-sound chestnut pavlova for the ears at the performance level, coming in huge holographic waves of wall-shuddering sound, the ultimate opaled ceasefire to the internal conflicts that drove Mumford to ever write it. When he says, afterward, “I’ve been feeling high on gratitude,” it is not even about taking him at his word; it is just about taking the sounds you just heard him make at face-value.
Likewise, the skeins of guileless trust it takes to author a song like “Better Angels” is more than prioritizing harmony over hostility and not letting the latter take one hostage, it is willfully succumbing to an occult chain of reason that makes battle-ready hope a prime directive. I have always marveled at Marcus Mumford’s musical intelligence, and specifically his ear-catching way of interposing tricked-out guitar embellishments within his compositions in such understated colors as to make those subversive sonic underludes the part that hits the listener hardest in the chest. This skill is another of his trademarks and “Better Angels” one of its best current champions. In the live setting, this song was, in short, a breathtaking bargaining and beatifying of the body-toxin that is grief. Kay Redfield Jamison’s book The Unquiet Mind made popular an awareness of the Chinese philosophy that beasts must be made beautiful before they can ever be truly conquered, and, with the elegance and lack of restraint that is (self-titled), Marcus Mumford has illustrated what sublimity post searing trauma can look like if you can learn that this proverb is not about putting lipstick on a monster. It is about coming to admire the toothmarks on yourself for having survived its gaping maw.
This tour is to be caught at any cost as well for the degree to which the bands behind Mumford are nothing short of outstanding. Atlanta’s own multi-instrumentalist magician Michael Libramento supplied an undertow of left-handed bass at the Eastern show that was worthy of its own headline slot anywhere. Mumford is hand-selecting local musicians throughout each of the cities he is visiting, and thus the backup lineup will be constantly shifting in the best and most inclusive way. The other major reason to go, even if you are unfamiliar with Mumford’s musical brilliance in any of its incarnations, is for the laughs! Good gracious at the unassailability of his English humor. Just because (self-titled) is a sonic landscape dedicated to the steeliest of subjects, do not expect Mumford to forego his national heritage of self-deprecating risibility when he walks you through the combat.
The Atlanta show was set off by his giving a detailed, impromptu dissertation on the differences in the ways that the British versus the Americans use the word “cunt” and he made the crowd and himself laugh so hard that several beats of catch-up breaths had to be taken by all. His numerous piss-taking pot-shots at the audience itself were Comedy Central-grade hilarity and included him giggling to a love-heckling stander-by “I’ll shut the fuck up if you will” and cackling at the top of the encore when a lady who fell for his unexpected shut-off of the group-singing of “I Will Wait” rang out some indescribable notes on her mortified own. “I’ve been trying to make a woman sound like that for a long time,” he howled from his bent-over-from-belly-laughing stance. These are the flashes of fanciful fun in his personality that, even beyond his lance-pennon of a voice and first-class writing abilities, made him the only person to seek out when it was time to pen the theme song for Ted Lasso. That television show, this record, its performances, and Marcus Mumford himself are all about sour sketches made sweet with the teaching wand of slapstick humanity.
- Awake My Soul (Mumford and Sons song)
- The Cave (Mumford and Sons song)
- Prior Warning
- Better Off High
- Only Child
- Dangerous Game
- Better Angels
- Go In Light
- I Will Wait
- Cowboy Like Me (Taylor Swift cover)
- Not Dark Yet (Bob Dylan cover)
- When I Get My Hands On You (The New Basement Tapes song)
- Kansas City (The New Basement Tapes song)