“How should we proceed / Without things getting too heavy?” asks Marcus Mumford on his first solo album. It’s a reasonable question to ask of both himself and his listeners, because the 10 raw songs on this self-titled record find the singer processing the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. He was apparently so concerned about triggering other victims that he sent all the lyrics to a trauma specialist to ensure he’d “reflected reality”.
This doesn’t mean he pulls any punches. The self-described former “fat kid from London”, who started out playing drums for Laura Marling and formed his own nu-folk band Mumford & Sons in 2007, has always worn his heart on his sleeve. His parents were both church leaders and he brought a preacher’s zeal into full-throated stadium anthems such as “I Will Wait”. When banjo player Winston Marshall left the band in response to the backlash he got for tweeting praise for far-right authors, the ever-inclusive Mumford “begged” him to stay.
But the dubious forgiveness offered on this album takes longer to materialise. There’s a whispered rage in the opening verse of the first track, “Cannibal”, that’s worth quoting in full. “I can still taste you and I hate it,” he sings, over the vibrating bass strings of his acoustic guitar. “That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it/ You took the first slice of me and you ate it raw/ Ripped it in with your teeth and your lips like a cannibal/ You f***ing animal.” He moves swiftly from accusation to consequence, owning the bodily fallout along with its emotional counterpart: “It kills me/ That there’s still some sick part of it that thrills me/ That my own body keeps betraying me.”
The suppressed, acoustic intensity of the song explodes into a synth-backed crescendo. But Mumford’s big yearning yawp of a voice – so often positioned warmly front-of-house in the mix on recordings with Mumford & Sons – is buried behind the instrumentation. It’s as though he’s handing over the experience. The technique is effective, with other abuse victims gathering online to thank him for expressing what they could not. There’s always been a congregational spirit to his band’s old-time folk rock, which invites bawl-alongs at gigs. This is equally collective in intent, but more evocative of the hushed circle of chairs at a support group.
In an interview with GQ earlier this year, the 35-year-old offered some details of his experience. He said that in the silence of lockdown, he’d been forced to confront “that thing that happened when I was six, that was the first of a string of really unusual, unhealthy sexual experiences at a really early age … when I was under the age of 12, which set my brain up in a way to deal with stuff later on in life in an imbalanced way”.
He is keen to stress that his abuser was not part of the church in which he was raised. But he didn’t tell his parents. So it’s his mother who is addressed on “Grace”, as a cradle-rocked riff evokes a hushed take on Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”. “Better Off High” addresses the “addictive behaviours” of which Mumford has spoken. The AM radio beat of tracks such as “Better Angels” is redolent of Eighties-era Springsteen, while “Dangerous” has a murkier, more menacing bass line. In fact, much of the album has an appropriately lo-fi, night-drive Springsteen album-track sound. The ambient skirl and churn of electric guitars and tape loops in the background keep things edgy. It’s like the sound of passing cars – possible threats. Mumford sounds like he’s in the passenger seat with his acoustic on his lap.
Mumford has quit drinking, but here credits that “medicine” as a coping mechanism that kept him together until he was ready to face the damage of his past. The lovely vocals of Phoebe Bridgers weave carefully through his on “Stonecatcher”. She supports him gently – a harmonising therapist – through the realisation that: “This light/ Glowing neon in the corner of my mind/ Burns and burns but leaves no warmth behind/ I kinda wish you’d just done it in the dark.” She unlocks something that allows his voice to soar free of the situation.
It feels uncomfortable for me to point out that there aren’t a lot of tunes on this record. This stuff has to come out the way it wants. It’s hardly singalong material. It is – necessarily – heavy. But it also fulfils Mumford’s intention, learnt from Beyoncé, he says, to leave us with hope.