When London quartet Mumford & Sons recently re-emerged out of the darkness with comeback single Believe, it’s fair to say that the drastic change in direction shocked a fair few people. Despite chasing off many of its fans with a transition to classic stadium rock, the Marcus Mumford-fronted group still attracted a whole new fanbase who grew to their new style and sound. The band has just put out their third studio album, the hotly anticipated (and absolutely banjo-less) Wilder Mind.
Although most people know Mumford & Sons best for their stomping, Americana-infused folk rock, Marcus Mumford recently declared that they needed to change their musical direction so as to avoid becoming bored of their own output. Wilder Mind sees the band make a full switch to electric guitars, drums and synthesizer, having recorded the record in New York. Album
opener Tompkins Square Park kicks off with a brooding riff akin to older Coldplay, before breaking away into a mid-tempo pace which consists of classic rock-by-numbers. If it weren’t for frontman Marcus Mumford’s recognizable voice, this could be any band. “Oh baby, meet me in Tompkins Square Park” he sings on the opener as its verse slowly builds up with underpinning synths and a lightly pulsating bassline. It’s a far cry from the Mumford & Sons we heard on previous two records Sigh No More and Babel, although that’s not to say it’s bad by any means. It’s just different, and this new direction is something that will need getting used to. Lead single Believe’sambient intro proceeds to embrace Mumford’s voice in another Coldplay-esque passage, with occasional guitar strums making way for the already catchy line of, “I don’t even know if I believe”. This line is main stronghold of the whole track, pulling it together at times when the verses start to feel somewhat disconnected. The track takes a while to build up, yet once it does kick in it hits you full on in the face with all its stadium-sized pomp and grandeur. The Wolf, which followed up as Wilder Mind’s second single, introduces itself with full force as pounding drums and sharp guitars intertwine alongside distorted bass and a faint, ambient synthesizer in the verse. A massive stadium chorus, which does it best to sound like Kings of Leon on a good day, is accompanied by a trashing instrumental section which screams “fuck you” to anyone who ever doubted their new direction. The songs on Wilder Mind are by no means unique or unheard of, but that doesn’t mean that Mumford & Sons can’t pull them off as powerful as possible, adding an extra edge for the most part due to Mumford’s recognizable vocal.
Wilder Mind, the title track, takes a step back with a repetitive drum beat and keyboard-heavy intro. Ambient noises are present all throughout the album, helping it sound like pre-Viva la Vida era Coldplay and Snow Patrol in their heyday. Despite all the Coldplay, Snow Patrol and Kings of Leon ‘soundalike’ moments, though, the one band Wilder Mind seems influenced by the most is U2. “You sleep so sound with your mind made up” sings a demure sounding Mumford on the title track, before Just Smoke treads on ballad rock by means of reverb-laced guitars and keys. If there’s a song on Wilder Mind which sounds like the old Mumford & Sons, it’s Just Smoke. “Young love will keep us young” sings Mumford emphatically during the chorus, with Monster proceeding to tread even heavier on ballad territory. “Yours is the face that makes by body burn” vocalizes Mumford ahead of some light, sing-a-long “aah’s” which add a heavenly, ethereal tone to the track. Snake Eyes keeps the tone on the downbeat spectrum, a territory explored a bit too much on Wilder Mind. “And the snakes remain to hide” murmurs Mumford over a mixture of gentle drums, soothing keys and echoed guitar lines which give off Bruce Springsteen vibes. Snake Eyes builds up and kicks in fully just before the halfway mark, with the drums increasing in power and an arpegiating synth line entering the frame during the following verse. Broad Shouldered Beasts remains indebted to faux-folk balladry for the most part, yet again sending out echoes of the old Mumford & Sons. “Wasn’t it you that said I wasn’t free” asks Mumford ahead of a catchy chorus which is accompanied by a Billy Joel-meets-Elton John piano line. Cold Arms, on the other hand, strips back all of the stadium rock bombast as it sees Mumford accompanied by just an electric guitar for its three-minute duration.
Although not explicitly mentioned elsewhere but song titles, the album is littered with references to New York, with the record having been recorded there with producer James Ford. One such song is Ditmas, named after the neighbourhood where the band recorded tracks at a studio owned by indie rock behemoths The National. Echoes of The National’s influence are definitely present on Ditmas, with a leading guitar line accompanied by powerful drums and a huge, radio-friendly chorus. It sounds like The National at their most hopeful, with Mumford addressing critics by claiming, “don’t say I’ve changed ‘cus that’s not the truth.” It makes way for Only Love’s brooding organ intro, which accompanies Mumford’s near-fragile vocals. A very light drum beat accompanies the organ and a guitar line, before the song builds up and becomes rather epic just after the halfway mark. It makes for the highlight of the album, with all the instruments slowly but surely having come together to form a massive rock-out. As the final chorus blares out over the amalgamation of instruments, it’s become very clear that Mumford & Sons are extremely comfortable with their current set-up. The album closes on Hot Gates, which remains downbeat for the most part as a glorious sounding organ drone plays the record out like a whirlwind of a journey which has just come to an end.
To be fair, Mumford & Sons were always going to get a lot of criticism for their third album. If they’d put out Babel or Sigh No More part 2, people would criticize them for their repetitive sound. Yet if they’d change their sound even a little bit, which in this case is a lot, they would get criticized for changing what people love most about them. Nobody wins in this situation, because Mumford & Sons are a band who people love to hate. However, Wilder Mind is by no means a bad record. Yes, it may follow a traditional stadium rock sound for the most part, but with Mumford’s recognizable vocals and some distinct Mumford & Sons elements it makes for an interesting listen. Mumford & Sons’ new direction may not be to everyone’s liking, yet it’s sure to open the eyes (and ears) of many former doubters of the band.