That group of banjo slaying Brits, Mumford & Sons has recently put out their third studio album Wilder Mind (2015) and the reviews have been mixed. To be honest I didn’t even know what I thought when I heard “Believe”, released in March as the first single from the album. My Facebook feed was filled with a lot of statuses full of disappointment and people typing shift-colon-9. This told me two things, a lot of people were fans of Mumford & Sons and a good deal of them were not optimistic about the new album.
Marcus Mumford and his band of merry men first started popping up on American’s radars around 2009 when their first album Sigh No More rattled our brains. It was folk but it wasn’t the folk of our fathers or even the newer bands like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Beirut and The Decemberists representing the genre in the new millennium. It was commercially successful but still had an “indie” vibe to it. Their concerts were diverse crowds ranging from business-caj to full-on lumbersexual. They were a brit band and they didn’t Americanize their accents and therefore were sexy on a whole new level. Then in 2012 they released Babel and they once again brought that unique, banjo-driven folk-rock energy. It was just as successful as their first album and even won them the “Album of the Year” award at the 2013 Grammys (just 2 years after indie darlings Arcade Fire became one of the first “unknown” bands to will album of the year – and causing people all over the world to say Who is Arcade Fire?). M&S were packing stadiums, selling out MSG and gaining new converts at a cheetah’s pace. What also came out of that era of Mumford was criticism that all of their songs kind of ran into each other with little variation and a running joke that all of their songs go along perfectly to this gif:
Then after another 3 years of touring with songs from their first two albums and holding the crown for one of the best indie-folk-banjo-bro-rock bands around they release “Believe” and everything changed. Sometimes change is good, sometimes it is bad and sometimes it is relative to our feelings and sentimentality. For a band, change can mean new opportunities and freedoms or a loss of followers and a career collapse.
It was July 25th 1965, and the folk god, that freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival and people knew that times were a changin’ because he took the stage with an electric guitar instead of his symbolic protest-driving acoustic. The result was a new era for Dylan showing his maturity and artistry, but the result was also a lot of booing and loss of faith in his vision. Now, I am in no way comparing the transition of Mumford & Sons’ sound from their first to albums to Wilder Minds to that of Bob Dylan’s epic transition but just setting the mood. Many bands like Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, TV on The Radio and even Radiohead have had major transitions in sound and survived. One other indie staple that went through a similar transition to M&S is Bon Iver. For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) was on everyone’s record players, computers, coffee shop speakers and ipods/phones from 2007 until forever. It was iconic and beautiful, you could make love, make art or make friends with that album on. “Skinny Love”. Yes, that was a sentence of its own; everyone melted for that song. Many of the other songs on that album had a similar effect and solidified Justin Vernon as your love and mine. Then four years later Vernon released Bon Iver (2011) which was a completely different set of songs than he had been playing, and everyone was having the same conversation that we are having this year with Wilder Mind.
The love of music – or any art form in general – is subjective and individualistic. There is no right or wrong in one’s choice of genre or band, but that doesn’t stop us from pretending that there is. That angst also translates over to the reception of a band’s album. If they stay the same on every album it is comfortable yet they get criticized for being a one trick pony and if they change too much they get a heavy dose of criticism unless the new sound is unequivocally better than the previous one. So essentially you are damned if you change and damned if you don’t. What is a band to do? Luckily when you are at the point M&S is, you do what you want. So what did they want to do? Change.
“To people that have heard it, it sounds like a jolt, but for us, it was just where we were headed.” – Marcus Mumford
Wilder Minds was created primarily in Brooklyn, NY instead of their old home base in London. They setup, wrote and made demo tracks in a garage studio in the Ditmas Park neighborhood. NYC has served as a muse to numerous bands and has subsequently affected the sound of many of them. Location is important but not often enough to influence such a vast change. in an interview with Rolling Stone, Marcus Mumford points out that the lyrics on the previous albums were primarily written by him, but Wilder Minds features a great deal of lyrical input from the rest of the band. “The boys kept coming up with a bunch of amazing lyrics that I found really fun to sing… It was quite a liberating experience – really relishing singing someone else’s lyrics.” In addition to new writing styles and a location change, there was one last major change: they also traded in producer Marcus Dravs (who produced their first two albums) for James Ford and The National’s Aaron Dessner – in fact it was Dessner’s apartment garage in Brooklyn that they were recording at. There is one huge influence on sound right there, new producers, especially ones that have been in bands before, can bring new ideas and help push new boundaries. Dessner being involved definitely makes a lot of sense. For anyone who has listened to The National, Wilder Minds will sound vaguely familiar. Not to say M&S is now derivative of The National, just that you can sense the influence in the new sound.
So about this new sound, what is it? That is a difficult question to answer (especially in context of M&S), without defining what were they before? Some would call them Folk, Folk-Rock or even just Rock [with a banjo], they weren’t an indie band (though the debate over literal meaning of being “indie” still rages on) though they sounded like they fit with indie bands like The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers but they didn’t have that corporate rock sound either. So what do we call their new sound? Why not just drop the labels and call it how you feel it. As for me and my house, we call it good music.
So they traded in the quirky banjo-driven, lines-of-coke-off-a-barrel-head energy and sound that set them apart for driving guitars, synths, session drums and more traditional harmonies, it doesn’t strip away the honesty of the sound. It is still Marcus Mumford’s gravely-yet-sultry voice and lyrical styling on every song, it is still catchy and makes you move, but I would argue it is something more, it is more complex and dynamic. The gif from above would not apply to this album as it did the other two, there are rises and falls but there are also long plateaus with starry skies above and calm, cool earth below. There are songs that still belong in a packed stadium and ones that would fit nicely in a dim basement bar in Greenwich Village. And even more, there are moods and emotions that show a level of maturity and evolution in the band.
The album starts with a track called “Tompkins Square Park” which is a catchy tune with a haunting lead guitar and some melodies reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, and ends with “Hot Gates”, a more subdued spiritual experience with a climax of harmonic fuzzy guitars and angelic synths that fade out to atmospheric ponderance. In between are a mix of emotion-extracting jams, like “Believe”, “Only Love” and “Snake Eyes”, that start with an intimate vibe and erupt into an energy becoming of traditional M&S. Then tracks like “The Wolf”, “Ditmas”, “Just Smoke” (perhaps the most “Mumford” sounding track on the album) and “Wilder Mind” are pretty driving from start to finish and definitely balance out the energy. The most intimate and soulful track on the album is “Cold Arms”, which is stripped down to just vocals and a guitar, it has a lot of folksy essence. The most powerful (and I would argue the most beautiful) song on the album, hands-down is “Monster”. It stays steady throughout the song with perfect rises and falls; it is neither driving nor too relaxed, it is… groovy. One of the most magical parts of the song is the pedal/lap steel guitar lead that makes a few appearances, it brightens and enlivens the track.
There are a variety of themes running through the songs. One major theme is love, from the feeling that it is lost in “Tompkins Square Park” to the repeated phrase “only love will win in the end” on “Only Love”. There also seems to be references to a relationship between New York City (overtly apparent in song titles like “Ditmas” and “Tompkins Square Park”) leaving the question of if all of the relational tones are strictly about human interaction. As usual there are quasi-religious themes running throughout with snippets of lyrics that parallel to religious phrases and text (seen in tracks like “Believe” and “Wilder Mind”).
It is a solid album and has replay-ability, time will tell if it will have longer appeal times than their previous albums. It will be interesting to see if future M&S records stick with this styling or go back to the banjo-spankin ruckus of their earlier days (or perhaps a hybrid of the two sounds). My guess would be that they will continue exploring in this vein.
The bottom line is that Wilder Mind would not likely sit in the same bin as Sigh No More or Babel, and most would argue that they are not in the same genre anymore. It is definitely more of a rock album, but let’s not be too hasty lump them in with Nickleback, Train and U2 now; they have so much more to offer. They do however fit comfortably in the same bin as New York rockers like The National and Interpol.
If that is not your sound or you don’t deal well with change then this album might not be for you. But I would encourage anyone who has not listened to Wilder Minds yet to go into it with the points made above in mind and give it a fair chance. And for those who have already listened to it and not liked it, do the same and see if it grows on you. Overall it is a great album and is still the Mumford & Sons we all love; just with a lot less banjo slaying.
Wilder Mind is available to stream and purchase on Spotify or can be purchased on iTunes or wherever you get your music from (unless you want it on vinyl and are in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. M&S is apparently so very not cool there).