Mumford & Sons (2015)
Be advised: This is not your parents’ Mumford & Sons.
Scratch that. It isn’t even your Mumford & Sons from the three-year-ago you.
Any review of the London’s band’s latest release “Wilder Mind” has to begin by addressing two existential questions: What happened to the banjo? and What is up with those electric guitars? For a group that had comfortably located itself in the acoustic rock/folk genre for their two previous albums, making banjos and kick drums hip again, this feels like more than just a little detour.
Electric guitars and Mumford & Sons. Two things you’d never thought you’d find in the same sentence.
Here’s the crazy thing: It works. In truth, Mumford & Sons has always been more rock than folk. The pulsating energy, the restlessness and angst, choruses practically screamed so you could see the veins pop out in lead singer Marcus Mumford’s neck. Songs calling us out of ourselves to some higher plain. The acousticization was what made this band stand out from most others, giving hope to any 20-something with a six-string that they, too, could lift their soul on high. But the case could also be made that a plugged-in Mumford & Sons was always inevitable.
I get why they did this. It’s the double-edged sword of any musician or band who successfully develops a musical style all their own – if you forever remain in that pocket, you run the risk of irrelevancy. If you dare to spread your wings and take the songs where they may have always been leading, you just might forever mess up a good thing. It’s a risk Mumford & Sons took, and it’s worth it.
You’ll hear traces of The National, The Strokes, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Radiohead, Coldplay. And yet there is no mistaking who this is – Marcus’ definitive vocal style, similar chord progressions, layered harmonies at just the right moment. This is not Mumford & Sons trying to sound like all those other acts; this is them stepping willingly into their next musical evolution.
While the new album may sound different, Mumford & Sons purists can still take heart – the essence remains much the same. The perpetual tug-of-war between belief and doubt, hope and hopelessness, love and loss, angst and peace – it’s all there. And it drives the pace of the record, from the dizzying track “The Wolf” to the more reflective “Hot Gates.” In “Only Love,” a hybrid of both styles, the angst is clear: And I rage and I rage / But perhaps I will come of age / And be ready for you / Didn’t they say that only love will win in the end?
If this album fails to deliver in any specific area, it’s the somewhat elusive songwriting. There’s a delicate balance between saying something and saying nothing, and Marcus Mumford flirts dangerously with this precipice. Songs like “Believe” are a perfect example: So open up my eyes / Tell me I’m alive / This is never gonna go our way / If I’m gonna have to guess what’s on your mind… sounds awesome when you belt it out at full volume or if you’re lucky enough to catch them live. But what exactly is it saying? Maybe only Marcus knows – and in his defense, ultimately that’s all who needs to. But sonically these songs lift us to a higher place, and it would help if the corresponding words could expound just a little more on what that really looks like.
All that said, “Wilder Mind” clearly delivers. So we come to a place of no return, Mumford sings on “Monster,” what feels like the record’s center, Yours is the face, that makes my body burn / And here is the name that our sons will learn. Life’s relationships – everything from the most intimate to the chance interaction – come with no promises and no strings attached. We make them what they are. We choose to go deeper or pull back. What that has to do with a monster I have no idea, but hey, it’s Mumford and Sons. Maybe we’re supposed to finish that idea on our own.
The more interesting question, in my own wilder mind, is not how the public will receive this switch-up… it’s what the band will do next. More arena rock? Back to acoustic? A hybrid of both? Or perhaps polka? (Just kidding on that last one.) I respect a band who is willing to take a calculated, thoughtful risk – recognizing that bands, like all of us, can’t help but evolve into what’s next.
Everything’s changing as it stays the same. That may be the best way to summarize the current manifestation of the Mumford and Sons journey.
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.