Music Monday V: Review of Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons

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As I’ve revealed on this blog before, and as anyone who follows me on social media probably knows, I’m all about Mumford & Sons.  My love for them began in 2011, when I found their debut album, Sigh No More, in the midst of a spiritual crisis.  That album brought peace, hope, and healing as I fought through that struggle, and my love for Mumford & Sons carried on as they rolled out Babel.  I had the good fortune of seeing them live three times, once in 2012 and twice in 2013, before they took a break in the fall of 2013 to pursue separate interests and to write new material.  As their hiatus wore on, I started to lose interest in the band.  I still liked them well enough, but the crisis that prompted me to fall in love with their music slowly resolved itself, and I found new artists to latch onto, so their music lost quite a bit of its oomph.

Starting in February of this year, the band signaled that they were coming back.  They dropped a few festival appearance announcements.  They teased a major shift by changing the look of their website and social media profile pictures.  And then they announced the release of their third album, Wilder Mind, and started dropping singles.  I hardly recognized the band that I had fallen in love with a few years earlier.  Gone were the waistcoats and acoustic instruments and old-timey charm (or cheese, depending on your feelings for the band).  In their place was a band outfitted with an edgier and cleaner get-up—leather jackets! Flattering clothes! Winston’s long hair!—and a liberated, electric sound with nary banjo or kickdrum or upright bass in sight.  It was quite a shock to me at first.  I listened to their first singles—“Believe” and “The Wolf”—with mixed feelings.  But as more singles were released, the new sound grew on me.  I decided to preorder Wilder Mind.  I listened to it on the eve of its release (thanks, Amazon) and knew I had to write up something about it on my blog.

So here’s that something.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way—this isn’t the banjo-toting, hoedown-throwing Mumford & Sons that many fans grew to love.  Folky instruments and driving stomp-y kickdrum have been replaced by electric guitars and basses, synthesizer flourishes, and a full drum set.  This new direction, hinted at by Wilder Mind’s leading single, “Believe,” understandably divided the band’s fans, some cheering them on and some lamenting the loss of the banjo as a step toward sounding generic.  Those who complained that Mumford’s first two albums sounded too similar, though, might find this album to be just the shake-up they were looking for, and it is sure to be a welcome surprise for any fan who is willing to follow the band wherever their sound goes.  The combination of guitar riffs, airy synthesizer, and short, tight drum beats draw comparisons to several bands:  the breezy “Just Smoke” has hints of fun., “Believe” is reminiscent of The Killers, “Tompkins Square Park” is a little Strokes-ish, and the hard-rocking “Ditmas” and “The Wolf” have traces of Foo Fighters.  Those who fear that their beloved Sons are starting to sound like everyone else might see their fears realized in this album.

As typical as the sound might be, though, it feels novel for Mumford & Sons, and it feels like just what the doctor ordered.  There’s space in this album that wasn’t really present in Sigh No More or Babel.  Songs aren’t as frenzied and fast as hits like “Roll Away Your Stone,” “Little Lion Man,” or “I Will Wait.”  I would reckon that there are more silences and instrumentals in this album than in their first two combined.  A few songs start quiet and then unleash a slow burn of stadium-sized guitar and synth and piano (notable example: “Hot Gates”).  There’s definitely less urgency and more breathing room in Wilder Mind, a welcome break from the breathless flurry of banjo and acoustic strumming and stomping of its predecessors.  But there are traces of their old methods sprinkled throughout the album; “Cold Arms,” for example, relies solely on Marcus Mumford’s vocals and guitar, like an electric version of Babel’s “Reminder.”

Some have complained that the subject matter of Mumford & Sons’ songs are too similar—distrust and disillusionment with a lover, loss, general turmoil and angst and confusion.  If you were looking for a more uplifting third album, this isn’t it.  Their songs are as somber as ever and touch on more or less the same themes.  It’s heavy with heartbreak and pain, perhaps intensified by the album’s new collaborative songwriting process (whereas the previous two albums were largely written by Mumford) and the fact that two members saw relationships come to an end.  They don’t dress their hearts up.  They’re laid out visceral and bare.  And it works for them.  It’s what they’ve built their music on.  It’s what their fans have connected and continue to connect with.  Some of the lyrics struggle with feeling overwrought and forced (the phrase “flash your flesh” in the title track bothers me like nothing else for some reason), just like in a few spots in their first two albums.  But I’m personally okay with their choice to keep writing about the hard stuff.  They do it well.

Long story short:  A new sound that’s similar to what’s already out there but that’s also a welcome change for a band seeking to expand its sound repertoire.  Lyrics that are as hard-hitting as ever.  If you weren’t a Mumford & Sons fan before, I’m not sure this album will win you over, but die-hard fans will likely enjoy it.  I almost forgot that they used to utilize the banjo, that’s how much I enjoyed it.  A solid 4 stars out of 5 from me.

 

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