a far too positive review of it for this very website.
Bottom line, Mumford & Sons really needed a new direction on their third LP. Since Babel,
frontman Marcus Mumford has proven that he can be much more interesting
outside of the band, whether by contributing to the soundtrack for
2013's Inside Llewyn Davis, or by serving as one-fifth of The New Basement Tapes—the
band that producer T. Bone Burnett assembled last year for an ambitious
project based around discarded Bob Dylan lyrics. The New Basement Tapes
especially had me wondering what Mumford might cook up as a solo
artist, as songs like "When I Get My Hands on You" and "Stranger" proved
to be stronger and more palatable than virtually anything from the
first two Mumford & Sons LPs.
Luckily, spending a year more or less ensconced in the legacy of Bob Dylan seems to have shaken Mumford awake. Wilder Mind,
the Mumford & Sons' third album, is a complete departure from
everything they've done in the past. Gone are the banjos; gone are the
mandolins and kick drums; gone, even, are the acoustic guitars. Right
from the moment a reverb-drenched electric guitar riff opens the album
on "Tompkins Square Park"—a song that sounds like a cross between Sam's Town-era Killers and Turn on the Bright Lights-era
Interpol—it's clear that the old Mumford & Sons is gone, replaced
by a darker, older, and more interesting band. "No flame lasts
forever/Most don't even last the night," Mumford sings on the chorus.
The song's pessimistic, despairing tone echoes throughout Wilder Mind,
an album that loosely chronicles a breakup set against the backdrop of
Manhattan's smoggy streets. Suffice to say, this is brand new territory
for Mumford & Sons, and it mostly suits them very well.
By itself, "Tompkins Square Park" is arguably the best song these guys
have ever written as a band. It's also immensely effective as a low-key
opener, and as a table-setter for Wilder Mind's stellar first
act. The song flows right into first single "Believe," a number that
simultaneous addresses the frustration of a relationship that no longer
works, and a crisis of religious faith; it sounds like an outtake from
Coldplay's X&Y. The hat trick is completed with "The Wolf," a
driving rocker that displays the band's new electric sound better than
any other song on the album. In terms of compositional structure, "The
Wolf" isn't so different from previous Mumford barnstormers like "I Will
Wait" and "The Cave": the electric guitars churn aggressively, just
like the banjos used to, and the drums pound with the same kick-drum
urgency of the band's folkier past. But the volcanic pace of "The Wolf,"
along with a catchy melody and a convincing "rock" vocal from Marcus
Mumford, makes the song something Babel never was: exciting.
After that excellent three-song stretch, Wilder Mind falls off a
bit. Even with the amps turned up to 11, Mumford & Sons suffer the
same pitfalls here that they always have—namely similar song structures
and not-so-great lyrics. For instance, "Wilder Mind" and "Snake Eyes"
are both solid tunes that suffer from having almost identical melodies,
pacing, instrumentation, and mood. A big arena rock guitar solo saves
the latter from being superfluous, but the similarities are tough to
The production also does this album no favors. To push themselves toward
a new frontier, Mumford & Sons opted not to work with longtime
producer Markus Dravs for this album. Instead, they turned to James
Ford, who has in the past helmed records for bands like Arctic Monkeys
and Haim—among others. Ford definitely helps the band fit into their new
skin. Just like Dravs, though, his style is too clean, leaving less
distinctive numbers like "Only Love" sounding both airbrushed and
claustrophobic. Ford's style is a better fit when he allows the songs to
have more space, like on the loose and contemplative "Monster," or on
"Cold Arms," a song where the moratorium on acoustic instruments works
to turn a simple Marcus Mumford solo tune into a haunting,
There is no doubt that these songs would have been better with a
dirtier, more live-oriented aesthetic. New Basement Tapes producer T.
Bone Burnett would have been a perfect fit, his dusty Americana style a
match with this record's 1970s Dylan aspirations. The National's Aaron
Dessner, who produced a similarly New York-obsessed LP
for The Lone Bellow earlier this year, could have been even better.
(Dessner provides keyboards on a few tracks instead.) Still, even if
Ford plays it a bit safe and makes Wilder Mind as radio friendly
as humanly possible, that fact doesn't tarnish the record too much,
simply because Mumford & Sons have brought a killer set of melodies
to the table this time around. Songs like "Just Smoke" and "Ditmas" are
readymade concert sing-alongs, with the latter functioning as Wilder Mind's
big cathartic climax. Closing track "Hot Gates," meanwhile, provides a
nice note of subtlety at the end of a record that often emphasizes its
loudness above all else. These are crisp, simple, and tuneful songs, and
they remind us why these guys became superstars in the first place.
All told, Wilder Mind is a very solid record—albeit, one that I
think Mumford & Sons will only improve upon with future releases.
Marcus Mumford's best songwriting remains the stuff he did with The New
Basement Tapes—potentially just because he wasn't writing the lyrics.
The rest of the band, meanwhile, still needs to learn that the "start
slow/quiet and crescendo to a big climax" formula gets boring when you
replicate it on every track. Mumford & Sons could even stand to
learn a thing or two about naming their own songs, since generic-as-hell
titles like "Cold Arms," "Monster," and "Only Love" probably make this
album seem less memorable than it actually is. (The song title problem
was also an issue on Babel, and is one of the reasons I can't
remember what any of those songs sound like even though I'm staring at
the tracklist as I type this.) I'm also hopeful that, in the future, the
band will find a way to meld their folk and rock sides together,
instead of completely shunning one in favor of the other. Still, despite
its shortcomings, Wilder Mind is a strong reset for Mumford
& Sons, and gives me hope that the band will be able to build a long
and interesting career—rather than just becoming a relic of what rock
radio sounded like in the early 2010s.