Mumford & Sons at a Crossroads: Are They Changing Their Tune for Good?

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Album Review: Mumford & Sons, Wilder Mind

Grade: B-

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But this is all I ever was
And this is all you came across those years ago
Now you go too far
Don’t tell me that I’ve changed because that’s not the truth
And now I’m losing you.
– Ditmas

After listening through Mumford & Sons’ latest album from start to finish, the first impression I had was, “this didn’t sound like a Mumford & Sons album.” I heard a lot of Coldplay. I got glimpses of The National. Vocally, I continued to hear shades of Dave Matthews and John Mayer. But that faux folk, hootenanny campfire ascetics from Mumford & Son’s first two albums, I barely found any traces of that band. What about the over-emotive vocals and climatic crescendos at the end of the majority of their songs? It appears sparingly on Wilder Mind.2

Is this reinvention, desperation, or a one-off sidebar for the London quartet? Only time will reveal where Mumford & Sons’ third album fits into their catalog. But as a standalone album, is it any good?

I thought we were done
That young love would keep us young
– Just Smoke 

It was bound to happen. Most artists evolve, grow, and change their sound over time. For some, it’s about staying fresh and taking risks. Boredom can spur stagnation in an artist, or it can awaken creativity, discovery, and novelty. For others, reinvention can be a desperate attempt to remain relevant and extend 15 minutes in the limelight. Mumford & Sons’ shift in music appears to be motivated more by the former than the latter. Apparently, the band outgrew the bluegrassy, spiritual sing-a-longs, or it outgrew them. I can relate to the band’s boredom with their own sound. I grew tired of it after hearing four or five of their songs on their first album. Despite their two widely popular albums, I’d argue that their formula grew stale and predictable on their first album. It was forgivable, however, when considering Marcus Mumford was roughly 22 years-old at the time of its creation.Mumford-Sons-4

 

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”200″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”Boredom can spur stagnation in an artist, or it can awaken creativity, discovery, and novelty.”[/mks_pullquote]

2009’s Sigh No More was a sleeper debut, although as a proper album, the songs were a mixed bag.   At the time, I found them to be inoffensive but nowhere near as talented or developed as Fleet Foxes or the Avett Brothers. Nothing has changed that initial appraisal. 2012’s Babel, their second album, was received with mixed reviews. It covered no new ground. And the more they relied on their slow-quiet to loud-rambunctious song structure, the more it diluted their noteworthy songs that followed that formula. Yet, Babel topped the Billboard 200. And then it won Album of the Year at the Grammy’s, an award almost nobody believes was merited (good thing Beyonce wasn’t nominated that year or Kayne would surely have come a storming).mumford-sons

Marcus Mumford and crew could have mailed in another similar sound album (like U2 for the past decade). Or, they could have fallen into the trap of bigger, grander, and more epic equals better (Oasis and Coldplay immediately come to mind). They are at the peak of their popularity and control their direction. Instead, they’ve delivered their most restrained and assorted album yet. But is it any good?

Well, this may be sacrilege to some, but Wilder Mind is Mumford & Sons’ best, most musically accomplished album to date. But it just barely succeeds.

Let’s start with its merits and strengths. The songs are well crafted and melodic. There is confidence in their song construction. They are economical and do not outstay their welcome. Energetic songs like The Wolf and Ditmas pack a punch. Subdued songs like the title track and Broad-Shouldered Beasts are deceptively controlled. Mumford & Sons is no longer attempting to pack every emotion in each song. [mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”This may be sacrilege to some, but Wilder Minds is Mumford & Sons’ best, most musically accomplished album to date.”[/mks_pullquote]Or at least, they are scaling back that awful tendency. The songs are given space to breathe. Most of the keyboards and synths used by Ben Lovett create an atmospheric backdrop that conveys a dark and late night locale. The instrumentation is less cluttered. The sounds are given space and breathing room. No longer are the band members competing with one another or playing in complete unison as a technique to amply volume and importance. I can’t help but believe that much of the musical maturity can be credited to Aaron Dressner, guitarist for The National. Wilder Mind was recorded in the band’s Brooklyn studio in Ditmas, which is the title of one of the standout tracks on the album. Aaron himself contributes to several tracks and you can hear shades of the circular guitar licks and reverb that have come to be expected from The National’s own music.

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Marcus Mumford’s vocal delivery is another strength and asset to this album. I’ve always found his vocal style to be off-putting. I’ve tended to lump Marcus with John Mayer and Dave Matthews in how they misuse their unique vocals. In the past Marcus has been guilty of over-emoting his delivery, relying too heavily on volume alone to evoke despondency, desire, regret, and hope. Marcus, John, and Dave all have at one time or another mistaken warbling for conveying vulnerability. On Wilder Mind, Marcus has discovered the value of restraint and employs quietness and low registered vocals for nuance, hesitation, and intimacy rather than the ol’ howl and holler approach. When he does revert back to explosive vocal crescendos, the scarcity of it makes it all the more effective and powerful. A “less is more” approach accentuates Marcus’ unique baritone and vocal delivery.

Didn’t they say that only love will win in the end?
– Only Love 

Thematically, Wilder Mind finds the band employing more ambiguity and mystery as it tackles common themes that surround relationships, regret, and fresh starts. That ubiquitous longing for love is what drives Marcus’ lyrics. It is also the biggest limitation of the band. I would call it the biggest weakness, but the economical use and placement of the lyrics helps temper their manufactured gravitas. By making the lyrics and the vocals more subdued and tempered, the mawkishness of his words and the generic imagery employed doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

And oh babe, can you tell me what’s on my tongue?
Can you guess that I’ll be gone?
With the twilight
With the twilight
– Tompkins Square Park 

Marcus probably will never master wordplay and rhyme like the best of Bono or Springsteen, but that doesn’t mean he 20130213-mumford-x624-1360786572has to settle for pedestrian and embarrassing compositions like Noel Gallagher or Dave Matthews. Springsteen and Bono are two songwriters also prone to rely heavily on religious imagery. However, they have been able to find that balance of taking broad and universal terms and making them personal, unique, and their own. Marcus has not yet mastered that discipline. In his earnest attempt to convey universal experiences to his audience, he neglects to anchor his songs with personal or specific context. Consequently, instead of his lyrics reaching for universal meaning, they tend to fall flat with no real meaning at all.

The album is neither a success or a failure, at least not yet. Most successful artists, both critically and commercially, don’t complete an evolutionary process in one album’s worth of time.[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“Wilder Mind finds the band employing more ambiguity and mystery as it tackles common themes that surround relationships, regret, and fresh starts.”[/mks_pullquote] If Mumford & Sons continue to expand their musical palette and improve their songwriting, then this album will be a watershed moment in their career. In the long run, Wilder Mind probably won’t be remembered or revered for the music itself but as a point of no return. Mumford & Sons’ third album will be where the band took their first bold step – where they stretched out of their comfort zone and risked a different type of scorn and ridicule from both fans and critics. But if Wilder Mind turns out to be a one-off departure before falling back into the assembly line of safety … well, it’s a shame, because this album hints that there is much more to discover within the band if they’re committed to their craft rather than convenient commercialism.9235320841_2bcc701371_o

 

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