MUNA’s self-titled latest is a clunky, uneven affair plagued by wild vacillations of quality and thoughtless lyricism.
Synthpop has seen a huge revival in the past decade, most of it of the fun and exciting variety. From Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion to Taylor Swift’s 1989, quality synthpop has not been hard to come by of late. MUNA have made a name for themselves in this space, breaking out in 2017 with “I Know a Place,” before finding more mainstream success with the Phoebe Bridgers-featuring “Silk Chiffon.” Their music is catchy, political, and unapologetically queer, a nifty combination that usually makes for interesting material. Unfortunately, the group’s self-titled latest record doesn’t manage to showcase all that makes MUNA great, resulting in a decidedly boring listening experience.
Part of the frustration with MUNA’s latest is that the band may have overplayed their hand with “Silk Chiffon,” which raised expectations for this album considerably. That track is clearly the best song here, an ode to queer joy that sounds fresh even upon committed relistens, but it was also the first single (released in September 2021) and is the first track on the album, a choice which makes for a record that has nowhere to go but down. Even more dispiriting to the total experience is that follow-up cut, “What I Want,” is quite impressive in its own right, and continues the opener’s thematic journey, a shimmering look at the second adolescence many queer folks find in adulthood, an extended moment when they are able to live recklessly (and openly) in a way they were unable to as teens. However, most of the subsequent offerings fail to live up to the weight of this two-handed kick-off; the impression is one of getting highlights out of the way in order to make room for mediocre material.
That’s not to say it’s a fatal sin to have blander moments littering your album — it’s only common sense that this will be the way of it — but it’s quite notable here how the bright moments are so overshadowed by duller material. “Kind of Girl” is meant to serve as an emotional centerpiece for Muna, a vulnerable song about self-compassion and the fluidity of identity. It features a nice mandolin line woven in, but the rest of the song is about as substantial as a wisp of smoke — not exactly what you want for the ostensible heart of your record. “Solid” takes as its point the difference between idealistic projection versus a person’s actual reality, and could easily be in conversation with Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” but fails to inject any fun into its musings. “Runner’s High” looks at the aftermath of a rough breakup, but presents only as noisy rather than meaningfully introspective. The sum of such moments is an inoffensive album, but one that also lacks the vitality that energizes much of MUNA’s other efforts.
It’s also worth noting that there are a bevy of head-scratchingly bizarre lines scattered throughout. Quirky lyricism isn’t inherently a problem, and can be leveraged to spirited ends under the right guidance; for instance, the opening of “Anything But Me” states “You’re gonna say I’m on a high horse / I think that my horse is regular-sized,” which is undeniably stupid but still playful enough on its own merits. But within the larger context of consistently cringe lines here — ”she is of material substance” (“Solid”); “I am not a brand new bicycle” (“Handle Me”); “I’m not some kind of minor trope that’s never gonna change” (“Kind of Girl”) — these turns of phrase become far more annoying than charming. This unevenness becomes even more maddening when instanced within the same song: “used to wear my sadness like a choker” communicates an evocative, even beautiful image, but it’s followed up by the vague and asinine comparison that it now fits “like a loose garment.” Knowing what MUNA are capable — sonically, lyrically — really illuminates the clunkiness that defines this latest record.