When Mourn burst onto the scene with their self-titled debut, they carried themselves with youthful angst and a penchant for wearing their influences on their sleeve. Their songs were like petty hallway spats that turned out to be far more serious than you thought, effortlessly capturing the moments when things escalate, and you don’t know whether to laugh or gasp. When you think you’re awesome, they say you’re boring. When you call them a baby, they say “fuck you!” Sure, there wasn’t anything revolutionary about what Mourn were doing, but their candor and passion made it extremely hard to write them off as a group of Ramones-worshipping, PJ Harvey-evoking teenagers, no matter how easily those who covered them defaulted into that language.
The follow-up Ha, Ha, He. was not much of a departure, but positioned itself as an even punchier collection of sloppy post-punk songs. It was more stripped-back and raw, suggesting that Mourn were most comfortable indulging their strengths, staying true to their vision while zeroing in on their most essential parts. You would never have guessed that, behind the scenes, Mourn were continuously getting messed about by Sones, their Spanish record label, who were not only denying them their fair share but, as Mourn put it, withholding all income from them, “including advances and royalties paid by [US label] Captured Tracks, all performance income from shows as well as merchandise money”. That’s the type of setback that would make you question what any of this is for, forcing even the most dedicated band to crumble at the seams or at least fall victim to apathy. However, on their third album, it feels like Mourn have entered a second life marked by the most focused and creative music the band has ever put out.
Mourn have had a lot of burdens to shake in the wake of Sorpresa Familia, and it almost feels like they could only have made this album with something to prove. It makes sense as the product of a fight for financial justice, and also sees Mourn viciously slithering away from the buzzwords people use to define them and the marquee names writers like me automatically liken them to. However, they don’t do this by changing their sound, but by upping the ferocity in their energy, the complexity of their arrangements, and the stickiness of their melodies.
You can still use one hand to count the number of Mourn songs that go over three minutes, but the tracks on Sorpresa Familia unravel more than Mourn’s music ever has. These tracks manage to pack so much into their short runtime, oozing with ideas and dynamism. Often there will be five or six musical motifs in a two-minute song. “Strange Ones” is almost proggy, entering a new form every 30-seconds, each one brimming with more urgency than the last. “Bye, Imbecile!” could easily have reveled in its breeziness, but breaks off into a thunderous coda instead, where the melody is trampled by crashes, slams, and screams of “GOODBYE!” Where Mourn would have settled for simplicity in the past, they are now pondering how far each song can go.
However, Sorpresa Familia avoids piling too much onto its plate. There’s still no room for clutter on this record, and each development makes way for a passage that could just as well have been a hook. “Epilogue” epitomizes Mourn’s ability to haunt and seduce without calming down; the melody here is subtle but gorgeous. While it’s easy to focus on the loud riffs and percussion, much of the experimentalism lies in the vocal harmonies, such as on “Fun at the Geysers”, where a yelp and a bellow spar for dominance over the chant that leads the track’s verse. When they finally agree on a groove, the song basks in euphoria.
The commitment to quality makes it easy to forget the drama that birthed this record. However, Sorpresa Familia would not exist in this form without the rage and hunger for justice that marked its creative process. Songs like “Divorce” and “Fun at the Geysers” are direct callbacks to the suffering and eventual freedom Mourn faced, drawing parallels between the oppressive bureaucracy of Sones and a toxic family relationship. “At 19 years old we’re signing our divorce,” they growl, and anyone who has gone through it knows divorce often becomes a blissful catharsis for the victim. Sorpresa Familia doesn’t merely mark this catharsis; it proves that Mourn needed to loosen the shackles to make the most fully-formed record of their career.