By Corey Beasley | 2 November 2015
At first blush, MUNA’s bright-as-a-nuclear-blast, densely compressed sound might make even the most enthusiastic ‘80s revivalist do just that—turn red, prepare an impromptu apology for that bass tone. But then—no, it can’t be, it’s really happening—“Promise” isn’t even ‘80s revivalism at all. No. Shit is straight up 1990. That’s right: MUNA treads the no-man’s land between the by-now readily-packaged swath of Reagan-era-worshipping, high-drama drum machine acts (your Twin Shadows, your CHVRCHESes) and the gnarly, check-out-THIS-tuning mid-‘90s college rock renaissance (Speedy Ortiz, Parquet Courts). And MUNA is brave enough to climb between these trenches.
You know what the highest-ranking, longest-lasting Billboard Top 100 single of 1990 was? Of course you do. You’ve closed your eyes, clenched your fists, and belted Wilson Phillips’s “Hold On” with two drunken, off-key pals at karaoke just like the rest of us. (Your unchecked passion made up for anything lacking on the technical side of the performance, by the way.) “Hold On” has become something of a punchline in the 2010s, its unabashedly inspirational earnestness still not reclaimed even by a musical climate increasingly amenable to the lush textures of Quiet Storm and Top 40 soft rock. (Not to mention a general cultural shift away from irony and toward unmediated, un-self-conscious expression, as Millennials continue to sweep away the dry, smirking ghosts of the past in a cloud of heart-eyed emojis and, I don’t know, vlogs? Yeah?)
It’s unfortunate, this lingering embarrassment at the sweet spot of unfiltered earnestness—in music and lyrics alike—that catapulted “Hold On” onto the top of dentist office playlists around the world. See, even I can’t talk about it without making fun, and I’ve been singing along to MUNA’s “Promise” for days, imagining a camera slowly panning over a windswept beach to zoom in on my soft-washed, resolute face.
Okay, perhaps “Hold On” isn’t the right 1990 referent here. MUNA’s sound, smooth as the jade in Carnie Wilson’s dreamcatcher, nonetheless dips too blissfully into other sounds—new jack swing!—to, er, hold up the Wilson Phillips candle. Okay, another candidate: Hammer pants. No, hear me out. You ever worn Hammer pants? Try a pair while you’re out running errands this weekend. (Hey, there’s your next VICE pitch, aspiring employable writers.) Comfort, shine, expansiveness, an extraordinary degree of un-self-consciousness: these are the elemental qualities of Hammer pants and “Promise” alike. MUNA vocalist Katie Gavin puts it all on the line, in that spirit. She exudes the type of theatrical, hypnotically charismatic air—in her abuse of vowels, the way she chews on words until they serve exactly her melodic or rhythmic purpose—as, yes, Kate Bush (a name sure to be checked over and over again whenever the band finally drops a record), or Gavin’s most like-minded contemporary, Sam Herring of Future Islands.
Herring and Gavin’s bands share a devotion to a similar “dark pop” palate, true, but it’s the way both singers use their incredible gifts to convey entire universes of emotion—without a shred of irony, that obfuscating shield—that at once exhaust and revivify, bludgeon and soothe, the listener who meets them on their own terms or drops her guard, even for a second, to let The Feeling in. And, like Herring’s, her voice transforms simple, confessional lyrics—“Why do I do it?” or “But I’m scared / So I tell you to fuck off“—into electric, gut-stabbing poetry. Whatever “Promises” sounds like, it’s as emotionally vital—as now—as anything going.