There’s nothing like a near-fatal car accident for resetting a person’s perspective. Two years ago, not long after the release of Mipso’s fourth album, Edges Run, three members of the indie-Americana quartet—vocalist and guitarist Joseph Terrell, vocalist and fiddle player Libby Rodenbough, and touring drummer Yan Westerlund—got in a car accident that left Terrell bloodied on the asphalt. Reportedly, the band had discussed disbanding around the time of the crash, which in retrospect makes their brush with death read like a sign from a higher power, or at least encouragement to stick together through hardships.
Hence their new record, Mipso, which puts Terrell front and center for the most part but accords more space to Rodenbough, mandolinist Jacob Sharp, and bassist Wood Robinson, the chief players in the North Carolina four-piece. Each of them take turns singing from track to track, and so each track gains in character not only based on tempo and tune but also on the band’s individual voices. Choral contributions remain intact. Nobody gets the mic to themselves: Even when they’re on lead, they share the spotlight with their peers, which means that harmony takes on the fullest meaning of the word over the course of the album. Terrell, Rodenbough, Sharp and Robinson sing in accordance with each other, sure, but they’re also singing about their collective shock and grief at having come so close to suffering losses, whether from breaking up or losing their lives.
Mipso isn’t as morbid as all of that, though. Frankly, the record feels practically lighthearted, and maybe it could only ever be that. The relief following Terrell, Rodenbough, and Westerlund’s survival floods through every song here, accompanied at times by allusions to death itself. On the opener, “Never Knew You Were Gone,” Terrell sings about departure using the images of slamming screen doors, full moons, carnivals and stars shining “in the heavens,” his words lifted up by Rodenbough’s fiddling. “Gone in a silvery fire,” he says, moving on to the chorus, “Gone right over to the other side for a little while.” “Never Knew You Were Gone” takes a slower pace, and, combined with the lyrics, suggests Terrell’s self-contemplation of his own mortality. That kind of reflection demands unrushed timing.
But reflection arises even on more buoyant songs, too. Rodenbough takes the lead on “Your Body,” a track that sounds at first like a plea for healthy living but actually revolves around body acceptance. There’s a sense here of bodies yo-yoing in shape and size, and an earnest confrontation with the difficulties of accepting one’s body under the pressures of social norms. There’s sanguine imagery here, too, likely unrelated to the accident and yet evocative of the highway carnage they experienced all the same. “And when the blood runs,” Rodenbough sings on the second verse, “And you wonder if you’re ringing like a bell / You can have your fun / But you’ll never know if you danced for yourself.” The message about body presentation indirectly calls to mind pictures of Terrell’s wounded form.
This recurring theme, whether intended or not, threatens to disrupt the collaborative aesthetic on the album. If Mipso is about the band coming together in the face of a tragedy, then the more that tragedy surfaces in the songs themselves, the more it clangs against the record’s driving purpose. But there’s not a person in the world who wouldn’t be consumed, to an extent, by a catastrophe like the one Mipso endured, so the repeated revisiting of this event is forgiven, particularly as the music itself is so good and so varied. Prevailing warmth defines Mipso’s sound, the kind felt on a bright North Carolina day, but the songs themselves follow their own directions: Gentle strums on love tunes, big uplifting choruses on countrified numbers, plucking strings on upbeat bluegrass songs. Mipso’s creativity, reinvigorated by trauma, is on full display here. But they find hope in that trauma, and joy, and not a small amount of beauty, too. Everything happens for a reason. Mipso happened by a grim reason, but we should all be glad it happened all the same.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.