Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Album Reviews

Marcus King Finds Soul Salvation on ‘Mood Swings’

Fans of Marcus King might get a bit of a surprise when they throw on his new record. The South Carolina native built his success on his double-barrel growl of a voice and roiling, capacious guitar crunch, which placed him squarely in the Southern jam-band tradition. King’s last LP, 2022’s Young Blood, was a rugged set of Seventies guitar-rock recorded with artisanal throwback specificity at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio in Nashville. On his new one, he paired with another production titan, Rick Rubin, who helps King switch things up and bring out the soulful side of his sound — while leaning less on guitar and more on piano, strings, and R&B vocal stylings.

Just check Mood Swings’ title track, with its soft throb and pliant, understated acoustic and electric guitar. Here, King’s voice is toned down to a conversational rasp as he entreats, “let me explain myself,” before outlining the challenges of honestly opening up his heart. When the guitar solo comes in, it’s a careful late-night benediction, not a scorching declaration.

This isn’t entirely new territory for King. His 2015 debut album was called Soul Insight, and he’s deployed horn sections and sumptuous grooves on songs like “Rita Is Gone,” from the Marcus King Band’s self-titled 2016 album, and “8 A.M.,” a ballad from his 2018 set Carolina Confessions. Usually, though, he’s folded those textures into hard-punching rock & roll. This time out, he’s deeper in the pocket. “F*ck My Life Up Again” has strings and a dusky, stretched-out lite-funk groove worthy of a Sade track, with King’s voice stretching out like Adele in resplendent-heartache mode. “Inglewood Motel (Halestorm)” serenades a “sweet little angel” over a taut studio jam built from squishy Steve Wonder-like keyboards, a frisky beat, and swaying horns. It’s capped off by a hot, Prince-ly guitar solo, like he’s channeling the organic neo-soul synergy D’Angelo invented in the Nineties. “Hero” moves gracefully between country, soft-rock, and soul, a little like Chris Stapleton, with King leaning into the groove with easygoing grace even when he’s belting it out. 

Rubin’s production offers a sensitive, characteristically unobtrusive backing for King, at times bringing to mind Philly Soul and the earthier side of Hi Records without sounding anything like a retro copy-paste. That’s a good thing, because King has his own, very modern use for these vintage settings. Where he might’ve played the smooth loveman or the downhome tough guy, he instead goes for something much more daring, vulnerable, and openhearted.

“I hope this album can act as a safety blanket, a rescue, or a refuge for anybody struggling with mental health, substance abuse, or relationship issues,” he said of the project, which is partly shaped by his struggles with addiction and mental health issues. In “Bipolar Love,” a spare, tender ballad that’s just his acoustic guitar, light keys, and conga taps, he compares a trusted companion to “a first responder.” On “Save Me” he sings strikingly about how a new relationship has literally restored his will to keep going: “for the first time I can remember, oh I’m afraid to die,” he sings.


The album is full of moments like this, where the lyrical conventions of a hand-me-down genre are enlivened with genuinely personal urgency. Against the acoustic coffee-shop lilt of “Soul It Screams,” he sings, ”I just need somewhere to sleep tonight/Somewhere that I can feel safe,” while outlining his own struggles with feeling accepted: “as for me I’ll always be running from anyone who ever tried to help.”

That safe space might be the arms of a lover, but it’s clear he’s searching for something symbolic as well: a place to feel restored and comforted in spite of his doubts and dark emotional passages — in his own life, and for the lives of his listeners too. 

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like