Review Summary: No banjo for you!
Mumford and Sons are as polarizing of a band as you’ll find these days. Featuring widely accessible folk that draws praise and nausea alike, they’ve already been hailed as everything from the saviors of the genre to the primary reason for its demise. I suppose it’s all in how you look at it, because even though mainstream folk’s popularity is peaking, there are many who hear Mumford and Sons on the radio alongside Taylor Swift or Ellie Goulding and cite it as evidence that folk music has completely died. They might also argue that Mumford and Sons don’t even write folk; that they are charlatans who apply makeup to bad pop songs. Regardless of where you stand though, it’s pretty obvious that Mumford and Sons leave a lot to be desired in terms of ambition. They have essentially produced the same record twice via Sigh No More
, and within those experiences were a plethora of suspiciously similar tracks that drew the ire of many critics. Fans probably didn’t mind the lack of dichotomy quite as much, but for others it added fuel to an ever-growing fire. If Mumford and Sons were to come out and perform the same act for a third
consecutive time, even their most ardent supporters would start to feel the heat. Change wasn’t just an option, it was an absolute necessity – and with Wilder Mind
, it’s what we finally get. Or at least that’s what we’re told.
The band’s third full-length aims for stadium sized alt-rock, and it completely foregoes the banjos. That’s right
– and while it may be overcompensating, it could be an emphatic enough contrast from previous works to attract the interest of those who wrote Mumford and Sons off as the Nickelback of folk. The record feels like it’s at least worth investigating, and therein lies the genius of Wilder Mind
. After refusing to budge for six years, they are finally showing – or at least feigning – a willingness to experiment, and it will open up new channels for fan acquisition that otherwise never would have existed. Despite what sounds like great news, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Mumford and Sons are pulling a fast one here. They dangle the bait (no banjos!), pre-release a track that is head and shoulders above anything else on the record (‘The Wolf’), change their apparel (gone are the suspenders), and put up an album cover that seems to signify the mysterious evolution occurring behind closed doors. But business and marketing aspects aside, it all boils down to the quality of the music. Is Wilder Mind
the product of vastly changed musicians, or is all of that stuff just a smokescreen - a selling point used in order to acquire sales while the band continues to put its feet up within the creativity department? The answer, as you might have already suspected, errs towards the latter.
Just as the banjo was a gimmick – a tool used to capitalize on the folk-pop fad of the late 2000s – its absence
is also a ploy of its own. Mumford and Sons’ harshest detractors often pointed to the mind-numbingly repetitive banjo usage as the primary reason for their loathing of the band, and removing it from the picture altogether serves as a giant middle finger to those aforementioned critics. It feels like the band is attempting to prove that they can be successful regardless of the style that they employ, even if they haven’t really changed anything of noticeable significance. Sure, there’s a distinct U2-laced brand of arena rock that permeates Wilder Mind
, and it will undoubtedly garner them the widespread acclaim that they thrive upon, but underneath all of the surface level production gimmicks we’re left with a foundation identical to both Sigh No More
. More often than not, it’s that same, trite old formula: slow, quiet buildups lead to shouted/chanted choruses that we’ve seemingly heard before. There’s no shortage of examples, but the lead single ‘Believe’ might be the worst offender – not only because it follows an overly simple structure, but also because it possesses one of the blandest choruses I’ve ever heard. The worst part is that Mumford and Sons take these severely substance-lacking moments – such as the ‘Believe’ chorus – and dress them up like they’re the most epic things they’ve ever created. It’s like spending hours polishing a penny you found in the subway…what’s the point? On an album that was supposed to be all about exploring new territory, we instead find them steadfastly – and disappointingly – unable to move beyond the narrow vision they have for their music.
Given their level of stagnation, it goes without saying that Wilder Mind
, for better or for worse, won’t change anyone’s opinion of this band. Those who adore the radio-friendly folk that they excel at will find this album to be comfortingly familiar, yet fresh enough on the mere premise that the banjo has gone away in favor of thriving stadium rock. Those who would shove their fists into their ears and gnash their teeth when ‘I Will Wait’ would play on their local radio station will still find Wilder Mind
to be stale and offensively bland, even without the banjos. But the fact that nothing of significance actually changed – especially given the hype that it would
– might be the most disappointing thing about this album. It almost would have been better to see them truly go out on a limb and fail spectacularly, if for no other reason than to make it known that they are in fact capable of change. Instead, attempts at growth occur halfheartedly, as if to claim on one hand that they are evolving while keeping their other hand firmly behind their collective backs – fingers tightly crossed, and presumably also holding a huge wad of cash. Wilder Mind
lends credence to accusations that Mumford and Sons are completely fake; that they’re out to make money with no regard for artistic integrity. This was an album with limitless potential to explore not only who Mumford and Sons currently are, but also who they could become with a little ingenuity. However, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, they squander it by taking the most calculated, conservative risks possible while producing Sigh No More Sans The Banjos
It’s safe to say that the “what could have been” is more disappointing than the “what actually is.” That’s an important distinction to make, because what we have on Wilder Mind
is not inherently bad
simply due to a lack of aesthetic progress. While many people have charged at Mumford and Sons with their torches lit (as I have in this review), it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they consistently write catchy songs with lasting appeal. That alone earns them some points, because it’s an art form in itself. Not everyone can write dependably catchy and memorable music, but Mumford and Sons seem to do it in their sleep. In fact, there's not a song on this entire record that isn't a decent stand-alone track…it’s only when they’re all played together that the experience starts to become tiring. Factor in that there are even a few great
tracks here – which there are – and it becomes difficult to justify ripping this band a new one. ‘Tompkins Square Park’ and ‘The Wolf’ both qualify as massive highlights, with the former smoothly weaving in and out of a mid-tempo lyrical goldmine while the latter boasts a much denser but equally beautiful form of alternative rock. For the most part, you’ll find yourself replaying tracks like these in your head over and over again. If the bottom line is how much you enjoy the music – which should always be the goal – then Wilder Mind
still has plenty to offer. They may not win awards for creativity, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the worthless, throwaway band that some people would lead you to believe.
At the end of the day, Wilder Mind
ends up being a well-intended push for change that falters mightily. It aims to give fans something different, but it does the bare minimum. As everyone already knows, there’s no banjos this time around – and on top of that, there’s a much heavier presence of steel guitars and electronic atmospheric effects. For hardcore fans who already adore Mumford and Sons, these minor intricacies will probably go over well. However, the album definitely won’t draw in many new fans, and it may even lose a few who enjoyed the confident stomp-folk of past years. It’s important to give Mumford and Sons credit where it’s due, but despite their stranglehold on the folk-pop (is that really a thing now?) empire, their flat out refusal – and perhaps inability
– to branch out in any meaningful way will always place a ceiling on their potential. For now, Wilder Mind
is just a bleak reminder of that.