Well, points for honesty. Mumford & Sons’ first two albums 2009’s Sigh No More and 2012’s Babel were massive commercial (if not critical) successes that spearheaded the pop-folk movement and made Mumford a festival banner name, but I get where they’re coming from on “Fuck the banjo”. If I spent the last five years making my living by playing variations on the same “BAH-lol-lol, BAH-lol-lol, BAH-lol-lol, BAH-lol-lol” banjo arpeggio, I’d be tired of the damn thing, too. It’s a small miracle one of the Sons never reenacted this scene on stage. But the Mumford model, even if it became a painfully obvious in album form, worked really well in song-size packages: build some acoustic strummed momentum, sing about some form of heartache, add kick drum, enter banjo, cue barrel-chested group vocals on chorus, reduce to simmer, repeat. Over the course of an album, the formula became worn out from a songwriting perspective and exhausting to listen to for song after song, but hearing “Little Lion Man” nestled between “Nothin’ On You” and “Animal” felt satisfying. So satisfying, in fact, that the band made the same album twice.
You’d have to be exceptionally daring or exceptionally lazy to make the same album three times, however, so here we are with the electric!Mumford album Wilder Mind. Wilder Mind doesn’t just run the Mumford formula through an amplifier, but retools the band as a radio-leaning alternative rock group. Occasionally, parts of it sound like they could come from Sign No More/Babel–the melodies in “Just Smoke” and “Broad Shouldered Beasts” sound lifted from a ballad–but Wilder Mind is, on the whole, a new product. The new Mumford even comes with new producers: longtime Arctic Monkeys collaborator James Ford and Aaron Dessner of The National give the album a veteran indie rock sound that, quality of the song be damned, at least sounds fit for the 10:30 PM spot at Lollapalooza. Lead single “Believe” leans hard into that shimmering, softly electronic, arena rock sound that U2 codified on The Joshua Tree, but surprisingly, U2 isn’t the primary influence on Wilder Mind.
That would be Dessner’s main gig, The National. M&S don’t just mime the band’s chambered, organic production, but their songwriting, as well. “Tompkins Square Park”, steadfast but mid-tempo drumming under measured vocals with subtle harmonies and all textured guitars, is a particularly nifty Trouble Will Find Me ripoff. Ditto for “Ditmas”, which is a poppier but still fruitful take on The National’s sound. These songs, along with the title track, make up some of the stronger material on Wilder Mind, but even they struggle to be memorable once the next tune clicks on. The problem with M&S imitating The National’s model is the move doesn’t play well with Mumford’s strengths. Mumford works best as a whiz-bang pop band playing songs that are broad, but not very deep. It’s designed for an instant rush: you’re supposed to get caught up in blanket sentiments and stomp and clap as the band strums furiously. The National’s style doesn’t lend itself to that kind of writing; the band’s entire premise is that they are a very (very, very, very, very) tightly wound group with intricate arrangements, mournfully wordy lyrics, and a frontman with a surprising amount of dark charisma for looking like your friend’s dad that maybe says five sentences to you all day. They’re one of the ultimate “grower” bands.
All that is to say that if you take The National’s sound without the complication, it gets pretty boring pretty quickly, such as seen on Wilder Mind. The quality’s never lax enough to get into “bad” territory (outside maybe “Believe”), but large chunks of the album are unadorned indie rock in its most average form. The middle of the album plods along contently. Soundscape-y numbers like “Cold Arms” with Mumford backed by a lone clean guitar or the atmospheric “Only Love” are competently pretty without being interesting. A lot of this has to do with Mumford as a frontman; he’s still just as schlubby a vocalist and lyricist as he ever was, but his empty-headed aching is ineffectual without do-or-die musical rush behind it.
It’s no wonder, then, that Wilder Mind‘s best song far and away in the one that sounds like old!Mumford run through an amplifier: “The Wolf”. The verses glide along nicely before building tension during a pre-chorus with drums building into double time while joined by guitars. The whole thing finally explodes into an honest to God rock out with a catchy riff that’s hard to deny, even more so on the second go around when Mumford lets loose with a howling vocal bridge. It’s easily one of the band’s best songs. Were modern rock radio not the worst, it could be a hit. But, things being what they are, I’ll be damned if it isn’t used to sell me a tablet before year’s end.
Again, I get why Mumford wanted to change their style. Not only were they likely bored of playing two dozen takes on “Little Lion Man” every show, but they would have been ripped to shreds for making Sigh No More 3. I’d even go so far as to say that the concept of Wilder Mind–one of the mainstream’s most energetic and outright loud bands goes electric–is plenty appealing. But, the band decided to shelf their passion and drive right next to the mandolin, and we’re left nodding off instead of being swept away. Marcus Mumford’s said he was obsessed with The National’s Trouble Will Find Me while making Wilder Mind. It’s only fitting that one of the former’s songs would perfect describe the latter: graceless. Two and a half stars out of five.
tldr: Mumford and Sons make a less convincing rock band than they ever did a folk band, 2.5/5.