When the Mumford & Sons broke in the last few years of 2000s, they gained some attention from the mainstream public for having strong singles with anthemic choruses and a ton of rollicking energy that rarely ever got popular... and then in a quirk of fate, they did get some chart success that only increased with their second album Babel, which launched a fair few singles into the charts, won a Grammy, and solidified the folk boom of the early 2010s. And most of the critical set couldn't stand them, seeing them as a pop sellout of 'real' folk music, one of the few genres left where a vestige of authenticity still mattered. And they weren't wrong here: Mumford & Sons were slick and polished despite the folk instruments and image, and Babel was even more so, and even despite the braying howl of Marcus Mumford's voice, the band had nowhere near the grit of acts like Old Crow Medicine Show or the Avett Brothers or any slew of alternative country folk acts.
Now for me the issue was different, because I didn't mind the bluegrass tinged Mumford & Sons sound and I'm a sucker for a great stomping chorus. But the larger problem revealed itself in the framing of the songs in their lyrics - namely that they wrote a lot of catty, passive-aggressive songs about sour relationships and played them all with such serious earnest power to disguise the nastiness of the material. It's why 'Little Lion Man' remains their best song: at least they admit they were the ones who screwed things up, but beyond that? To this day, I'm still debating whether it's an issue of incompetence - the bargain-barrel symbolism would support that argument - or just douchebaggery, but it sure as hell did not make Mumford & Sons remotely likeable. And just like Nickelback, their post-grunge parallel, their material gets formulaic in a hurry if you listen through an entire album front to back.
And thus it wasn't really a surprise to me when I heard that the band had gotten so resentful of their image and the banjo that they ditched them entirely for a straight-up electric rock sound - proving it was transparaent since the very beginning, but whatever. I'll, I wasn't looking forward to this release - I covered the lead-off single onand it sounded like a watered-down U2 wannabe, and I already heard Imagine Dragons try that earlier this year. So I had low expectations, especially considering the best element of their sound - the folk groove - was now completely gone. But even with that, what did Mumford & Sons deliver with Wilder Mind?
Well, after plenty of listens to this record, the simplest way to describe it would be an electric Mumford & Sons record - except minus the energy, spark, and unique flavour that at least made their earlier records stand out. And what's even more frustrating is that it's not even an interesting failure or outright catastophe - Mumford & Sons simply did what they always do lyrically and tried to fuse it through a different instrumental framework... and man, it does not work.
So okay, let's start with that big change in instrumentation and production. Gone are the banjos and the majority of the acoustic elements, instead leaving behind a mix filled with sparse percussion, leaden bass lines, and fast-picked, noisy fluttering guitars, with occasionally some piano or strings to punch up the melody line. If that description sounds generic for rock music, it's mostly because this album really does not do a lot interesting instrumentally since losing their iconic fast-picked grooves, trying to compensate by adding some rougher guitar licks reminiscent of Snow Patrol mid-way into the mix and some more ponderous elements that call to mind The National. Hell, they called in guitarist and producer Aaron Dessner from The National, and on some level, it makes sense. But having gone back to revisit Trouble Will Find Me recently, the difference in melodic flow is palpable - even on more percussion-heavy segments, The National still had audible melodic fragments that accented the overall groove to keep the flow throughout the verses, whereas Mumford & Sons tends to keep them mostly isolated to the background in a blurry, reverb-thickened mass. And that's a problem, given that while Snow Patrol and The National use reverb and distortion to accent their melodies - normally being pretty sparse - Mumford & Sons is nowhere near as careful, so you get moments like the choppy opening riff of 'The Wolf' or the guitar pieces on the title track that get their melodies caught within the feedback, and especially on any guitar solo, especially on the tail end of the album. Coupled with the loud/soft dynamic they hammer with nearly every track, the crescendos that used to be some of Mumford & Sons' most potent assets are nowhere near as effective.
So once again, we have another record that tends to place percussion and groove over melody - but that's the other major problem, in that many of the actual bass and rhythm lines are completely underwhelming, especially in comparison to Mumford & Sons' best work. The bass progressions are generally the weakest link, as they have nowhere near the texture or bite to really anchor the grooves or match the rougher guitars, and there's no sense of tension or aggression or driving presence, which dampens the emotional stakes even further. Now that's not saying they can't make this work - the more energetic hook of 'Tompkins Square Park', the country-sounding guitars that opened 'Monster' - really the best part of the song, considering how misshapen and meandering that track is - the seething aggression of 'Snake Eyes' and explosive second half of 'Only Love' thanks to actually having a solid bass line, the piano and gentle acoustic groove of 'Broad-Shouldered Beasts'... hell, really when this album actually manages to develop a pulse, it gets at least a little interesting, but this ties into our second major change and problem: Marcus Mumford's delivery. In theory, I get what he was trying to do - go for a lower, quieter, more intimate delivery, but man, is this an area where Mumford's narrow dramatic range works against him. His voice works well in broad strokes on potent anthemic choruses, and delivery in this range demands subtlety he doesn't really show in that range. At least when he could get raw and aggressive on louder songs you could buy it, but here he really comes off as wooden and lacking dramatic intensity, especially considering most of the choral vocals are pitched off the album entirely. It gives the impression of disinterest or aloofness or detachment, and believe me, that's the wrong attitude to take with these tracks.
And that's because of the lyrics... and look, it's a Mumford & Sons album, they haven't exactly evolved lyrically beyond slightly better structure and flow and a more interesting metaphor or two. But thematically, it feels like we're treading ground we've already seen twice before: fractured, bitter relationship songs that when you peel back the layers, the more ugliness you find. And it doesn't help Mumford's low-key delivery comes across as incredibly passive-aggressive, with the lyrics often cementing it. 'Believe' is a prime example, presenting disillusionment before the loud segments bray for an assertion of love, but if he doesn't believe before, why would he now? 'The Wolf' switches passive-aggression for condescension as he spends the verses judging the poor state of his lover - 'you have been weighed, you have been found wanting' - and yet Mumford will be there so long as you 'leave behind your wanton ways'. Or, as he puts it on 'Monster', easily the worst track on this album, if she is to go to the place of no return with him, '*** your dreams' - because that's the way you want to start a long-term relationship! The break-up songs are handled a little better, although tracks like 'Broad-Shouldered Beasts' do push it, where she's about to dump him and yet she doesn't have the courage, and thus Mumford feels he must provoke her enough to push that necessary edge. Or take the bad relationship of 'Cold Arms', where she's clearly uncomfortable and upset in the relationship, but yet stays regardless because Mumford implies it's better than nothing - it's like 'Better Man' by Pearl Jam written from the perspective of the asshole! The best break-up track on the album is 'Tompkins Square Park' because it's at least weary mature acceptance considering he lied to her and broke her trust, but it's counterbalanced by 'Hot Gates', an attempt to console a suicidal friend and yet includes lines, 'Why do you always speak when you have no grace / in your precious face' and seems like Mumford is more aggrieved the person is breaking their promise to him than actually committing suicide.
And this ties back to the issue I've always had with the songwriting on this album: the framing. The songs might imply the protagonist has problems or has done wrong, but never on the same level as his partners, who are portrayed as capricious, insecure, frequently in over their heads, petty, or on a track like 'Snake Eyes', downright sinister. At least I can respect the last for mostly pulling off the 'Maneater' vibe to not go back to her, but the larger issue ties back to Mumford's vocal delivery. When you come across as aloof or detached from the situation, the message implied is that he's the one being reasonable in the face of these relationships, and he's the one making the sacrifice. And what's all the worse is that there's no moment that punctures the arrogance of it all - take 'Ditmas', where she accuses him of changing when he 'clearly' never did, and now she wants to leave - maybe engaging in a dialogue might actually help instead of dismissing her as roving and never committed unless she 'changed' him, themes that are echoed again on the title track and were never an issue for him because he had been blessed with a 'wilder mind'? And if it was implied anywhere that the protagonist might be a judgmental asshole or even that he's not seeing the whole picture, you could maybe excuse it, but we don't see that in Mumford's delivery or in the writing. If I were to find an exception, it'd be 'Only Love', the song where Mumford's immaturity backfires and he gets dumped, which he at least admits... it would have been better if he had realized that something down the road was probably destined never to work, but that would require a level of sophistication in the framing that this album doesn't have.
So in other words, the more I've listened through this album, the more I find it turns my stomach. The best thing I can say is that there are elements of a good performance on some tracks I can appreciate - even if they don't do it well, there are moments where appropriating Snow Patrol and The National does pay enough dividends, given I like both bands. But when you pair it with an underwhelming vocal performance and lyrics that set my teeth on edge, I can't recommend this. At least when Mumford & Sons had folk earnestness, they could plead ignorance in their anthems and make up for it with thunderous power. With Wilder Mind, we don't even have that. That said, I'm not going to deny there are moments where even some of the sour moments do have resonance on a deeper level, mostly because even though I can't stand it, I've been in analogous situations and have had those condescending or detached thoughts. The difference is that I've got the hindsight to put things in larger context, which this album doesn't have the energy, intensity, or lyrical ability to pull off. I'm thinking a 1.5/5 is pretty appropriate, and definitely don't check this out. If you want to hear this sound done right, look up Trouble Will Find Me by The National from 2013, or hopefully Snow Patrol will drop a new record this year. If Mumford & Sons left folk rock for this, I predict it won't be long before they're either back, or just irrelevant. And not a moment too soon.