Review Summary: Gentlemen at the middle of the road
If a definition for the phrase meteoric rise ever gets placed into Merriam Webster, Marcus Mumford and co. should probably be its picture. Riding the wave of the English folk revival, the kick drum and banjo wielding London group brought its stomping brand of epic folk to the public and two albums later, they are enjoying the spoils of an arena-filling band: the frontman marrying an acclaimed actress, a slowly growing collection of Grammys, and more money than you can shake a 24 carat gold bullion at. Yet they are also the subject of intense debate the likes of which hasn’t been seen for band of their stature for some time. Yes, contemporaries like U2 and Coldplay have settled into being elder statesmen of music, producing less inspired copies of their greater works. But there’s a fierce divide between fans and detractors when it comes to Mumford & Sons, making this polarizing effect a bit of a selling point for giving the band a shot and discussing whether there’s any difference between The Cave and I Will Wait.
In interviews, Mumford has stated that the band is merely going back to the instruments they all played before, and that a musical progression was natural. It certainly did seem like a change was in the works when the details for Wilder Mind
came out: Markus Dravs handing off the production reins to Arctic Monkeys and Florence guru James Ford; the fact that the band recorded their demos in Aaron Dessner’s Brooklyn studio; the swapping of waistcoats and suspenders for leather jackets and denim in band photos; and of course, the album cover of an empty bench looking over the expanse of London at night, the band members curiously absent. It’s the image of a band at odds with everything that propelled them to music stardom, aching for a chance to try something else. This in turn begs the question: what does Wilder Mind
To be fair, the changes in instruments and in production are fairly significant in places. The banjos are in fact gone and replaced by electric guitars and pedals, actual drum kits, and keyboards. The rest of the band contributes musically and lyrically to their third LP, rather than following Mumford’s lead. The added perspective from the rest of the band makes the result play out like a very polished mixtape of the band’s favorite influences. Written by the entire band instead of just Mumford, "Believe" opens with X&Y-era ambient washes and twinkly piano lines, slowly building until the song bursts with a squawking guitar solo and rollicking drums towards the final third of the song. But there’s a lyrically suspect quality that courses through this song and rest of the album, delivering ham-fisted couplets like “So open up my eyes/ Tell me I’m alive” that betray its decent musical backing. "The Wolf" channels the Strokes and early Kings of Leon with its attempts at rock grit and jangle as Mumford implores, “Leave behind your wanton ways/ I wanna learn in love in kind.” That seems like a sweet sentiment until one realizes that’s just a really nice way of saying someone’s a whore and that they should change. The title track finds Mumford reaching for striking imagery and falling short despite its quietly stirring musical parts: “Waiting on the edge again/you sleep so sound with your mind made up/Drinking from your cup of broken ends.”
The influences-on-sleeves approach continues elsewhere on the rest of the album with similarly mixed results. "Tompkins Square Park" sounds like a less immersive version of the War on Drugs, with its chugging drums and a hazy, reverbed guitar line dancing a bit too tastefully upon a quiet string-section in the background. "Hot Gates" wears the band’s affinity for The National proudly on its sleeve, considerably aping the progression from “Fake Empire” into a tepid retread without the build-up and ease of the song that inspired it. "Snake Eyes" works that influence into something more moving, creating the sort of quiet-loud dynamic the quartet is known for but works enough guitar-based textures, flittering keyboard arpeggios and subtle atmosphere into the background to warrant repeated listens. It earns its rousing coda, a notion that escapes most of the songs on Wilder Mind
Too often on their third LP, the band resorts to the same sort of stomp and grandeur they’re known for but dressed in electric clothing, as evidenced on songs like "Just Smoke" and "Broad Shouldered Beasts". To their credit, it takes a certain courage to abandon their aesthetic and to deliver their songs in a fairly different manner. But the supposedly career-changing musical left turn only resulted in varying shades of vanilla, and by taking the approach of their contemporaries who direct their songs to the cheap seats, Mumford & Sons have gone from being polarizing to being harmless. There are some quality moments on this album that may make fans believe that this is a transition on the way to something more cohesive and riveting. As it stands though, Wilder Mind is the musical equivalent of a merely nice gallery painting. It’s the kind of art you like and forget about the moment it’s left your view.
Highlights: Snake Eyes, Wilder Mind