After winning a coveted Grammy for Babel, just their second full-length album, the always-eclectic Mumford and Sons fell quiet, taking some time off after touring relentlessly. It was time for a break. During that break, it didn’t really feel like the band was gone, or at least not the influence. We saw Marcus Mumford join supergroup The New Basement Tapes to sling new flavors and melodies onto old, unused Bob Dylan sessions. They even released multiple live recordings, but it seemed the hiatus might go on for a while.
Then suddenly, like night and day, the band was back. With a new sound. The sound of going electric. Interview after article after feature speculated on what the band might sound like now that they had ditched the banjos and traded them in for electric guitars. Listeners had a right to be leery, knowing what they had been doing all along was the reason why they loved them. Now, Wilder Mind is out in the public eye, and it’s up to the fans to decide if they want to welcome the band back with loving arms, or throw them to the wolves.
The thing that sticks with me for Mumford and Sons since their debut with Sigh No More was always the lyrical content. Such poignant phrasing, mixed with anti-structural verbiage written by the band made for such a pleasant and unexpected experience. With Wilder Mind, those practices have been at least lessened, and replaced with more melancholy, slightly predictable turns of phrase. It’s still Mumford. It’s still great. It’s just different.
Take “Believe” for example. Glimpses of what came before appear from time to time: “Say something, something like you love me / that you want to move away / from the noise of this place”, followed by a continuous chorus of “I don’t even know if I believe / what you’re trying to say to me”, blended over a stretched melody that fits into a nearly perfect single. It’s just that, some of the magic is a bit gone, for lack of a better phrase. The part of the single that really made me believe (pun intended) in this new, electric sound: the crunchy, raw riff that explodes during the final chorus. That’s when I knew this could work.
The electric element simply adds a new dimension to an established rock band that knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re making their sound a bit more palatable for the masses, to encourage another number one record and subsequently put in their bid for a second AOTY at the Grammys. “The Wolf” has the closest structure to something off of Babel, with the fast pace acoustic and steady drum beat. Lyrically, it keeps the theme: “Been wandering for days / how you felt me slip your mind / leave behind your wanton ways / I want to learn to love in kind / because you were all I ever longed for” will get stuck in your head for days, and that’s what Mumford aimed to do with this record. Go electric, and make even catchier tracks.
More intimate and softer moments abound, similar to the halfway point in Babel, and the first of these is the title track. With it, the band gives hope: “You can be every little thing / you want nobody to know / and you can try / to drown out the street below / and you can call it love / if you want”. The band writes of a failing relationship well, as they always do, but there’s something more poignant about this one. If Sigh No More and Babel were built with wooden instruments, this new record feels like it’s made of steel and marble. The beauty of the songs gets stronger with the ambient guitar solos, and a full drum kit is a welcome sound.
“Monster” reveals some of the most brave, sad, and focused lyrics on this collection. “So we come / To a place of no return / Yours is the face, which makes my body burn / And here is the name, that our sons will learn: / Cast the beauty, cast the queen / Cast the beauty, leave me” Had this album been done acoustically like before, it’s likely there wouldn’t have been any music whatsoever. It shows the need for maturity and growth musically. “So when you’re weak / When you are on your knees / I’ll do my best, with the time, that’s left / Sworn with your spirit, you’re fully fleshed”. These words paint a beautiful, yet painful picture of the end of love, when there’s nothing left.
The strongest song on Wilder Mind, arguably, is “Snake Eyes”. It encompasses the steady buildup we’ve come to know and love from Mumford, and it doesn’t come as quickly as you might think. The soft guitar echo helps with the build, with a drum beat keeping speed and time before the it comes full circle. “Broad-Shouldered Beasts” reminds of “Lover of the Light” with more steady build up and Mumford’s careful, quiet phrasing. It’s another intimate moment that shouldn’t be passed by. Pop sensibilities abound in “Ditmas”, likely more than any other track on the album. With a simplistic guitar tone, basic percussion, and a catchy chorus, it’s sure to be a hit, but not for the same reasons “I Will Wait” was, or any of their other singles from the past. The passion returns on “Only Love”, easily the most beautiful song on Wilder Mind. “I didn’t fool you but I failed you…and I rage and I rage / but perhaps i will come of age / and be ready for you / and you saw me low / alone again / didn’t they say that only love would win in the end?” It’s a gut-wrenching love song, and just at the right moment, the band kicks in and jams for another minute and a half. While “Hot Gates” is still a fitting bookend, I feel like the album would have ended more powerfully with “Only Love”.
What is hard to describe is just how much like Mumford this album really sounds. While it’s certainly not stripped down like the last two, it still has such a robust flavor of the band we’ve come to love, and originally I had taken the approach that the lyrical content wasn’t as up to par. I was proved wrong in many instances, and proved right in others. What it comes down to, is that Mumford and Sons is back, and ready to be even more radio-friendly than they’ve ever been. And they’re doing it very well.