Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mumford & Sons - Wilder Mind

Since their debut album dropped in 2009, Mumford & Sons have become synonymous with the mainstream folk-rock revival. However briefly, these lads from London got guitars, banjos, mandolins, and kick drums back on the radio, paving the way for similar bands—from The Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men to The Avett Brothers and The Lone Bellow—to find their own mainstream success. The band's first album, Sigh No More, was like Diet Fleet Foxes, loaded with stirring folk-rock choruses and plenty of Appalachian folk ambiance. It wasn't a great record, but it wasn't hard to see why songs like "Little Lion Man," "The Cave," and "Winter Winds" became hits: they offered digestible twists on traditional roots music in a way that the radio world hadn't seen since the 90s. Babel, the 2012 sophomore effort that won Mumford & Sons an Album of the Year Grammy, was more or less a carbon copy of its predecessor, and while the record wasn't bad, it was boring enough that I haven't gone back to it since I wrote 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 ignore.

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, electric-guitar-led lynchpin.

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.

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