It seems to be have become the norm for bands who carry success beyond the “difficult second album”, that no sooner do you find a formula that works, it begins to wear thin; “the sweetest honey is loathsome in its own deliciousness” and all that…
And so it seems the world was starting to grow tired of stadium-sized folk-rock. The paradigm built on the foundations of one man wearing his heart on his sleeve and a guitar around his neck, whilst belting out emphatic melodies, complimented by an array instruments otherwise consigned to the music of yesteryear (and a pounding bass drum) has become all too familiar.
It’s a sign of Mumford & Sons’ astuteness that their latest offering, Wilder Mind, is a step into less familiar territory. Described as “a development, not a departure” by Marcus Mumford, the band clearly feel the need to tread new ground, but without leaving behind all that has made them one of the biggest bands to ever pick up a banjo.
The first step is certainly an unexpected one, as the guitar and keyboard combo that opens ‘Tompkins Square Park’ is instantly reminiscent of X&Y-era Coldplay (a not inappropriate reference when considering the third album shift of focus that X&Y represented for another British band built on folky balladry and southern earnestness). However, as the song opens up the riding bass and rolling drums are more West Coast than West Country. This isn’t the Mumford & Sons we know, and, even with the knowledge that the band would ditch the acoustic instruments, it isn’t the Mumford & Sons we were expecting.
The American influence is clear, and not just through lyrical references to NYC parks (Tompkins City Park is the first of two of the Big Apple’s green spaces to be name-checked); there is cinematic ambition at the heart of the sound, and an understated moodiness that reveals itself in the lyrics unlike that which we’re used to: “I’ve never been so lost, I want to hear you lie one last time’. Tompkins City Park is a break-up song that could be an allegory for the band’s steps away from what they know, fond of what has been, but well aware that “no flame burns forever…most don’t even last the night”.
We slide seamlessly into ‘Believe’, which again hints at Coldplay, but it is the ripping vocals of Mumford and fizzing guitar of Marshall that give the song’s crescendo purpose and save us for what seemed certain to be an epic, indulgent drift.
The drive that has been, to this point, sprinkled around the songs is the opening force for ‘The Wolf’, and it’s clear now that the Coldplay touches are just colour. The song is up-tempo, driving and full, akin to Kings of Leon covering Arcade Fire, albeit without the sonic depth that Arcade Fire have made their own. This is where the album gets a foothold, the Mumford downing of the acoustic instruments isn’t just for effect; there is some purpose here too. The beat drives the song along, and it is clear that, as Marcus Mumford described, the band have fallen back in love with the drums.
Title track ‘Wilder Mind’ brings us back down to the subtler feel of the opening tracks, but the scene here is more country, with a hint of Finley Quaye. Lyrically the song paints a vague picture, one of ambition and succeeding against the odds. Again the themes seem fitting to a band that are moving into unknown territory: “you can be every little thing you want nobody to know”, but beyond the loose theme the track lacks conviction. There is a sentiment within the track that seems to sit at the heart of what Mumford are doing with the album Wilder Mind, but it doesn’t feel quite defined, or tangible.
This uncertainty continues in ‘Just Smoke’, which proclaims “I thought we were done; young love would keep us young”. The heart of the song is never evident; it now feels that the storytelling of songs like ‘Little Lion Man’ and ‘Lover Of The Light’ has been replaced with a more cinematic setting, without the compelling characters that hooked you into the Mumford songs of previous albums.
‘Monster’ is another song that hangs heavily on Americana, feeling at times like a Springsteen cast off and at others like a Kings Of Leon B-side. It drifts through a portrait of a relationship at breaking point, with a surrendered nonchalance. “When you’re weak, when you are on your knees, I’ll do my best with the time that’s left”, sings Mumford, but there is no conviction in the words. “So fuck your dreams, don’t you pick at our seams” is the most controversial, and potentially interesting, lyrical moment on the album to this point, but, aside from a slight emphasis on the F-word, it is delivered without any real musical impact.
“You hold it in your hands, and let it flow. It’s cruelty of youth as you forget alone, in the compromise of truth. It’s in the eyes; I can tell you will always be danger.” All of a sudden the tension is back, ‘Snake Eyes’, begins quietly, but with a tight grip that holds you and lyrics that snap us back into the knowledge that at their best Mumford & Sons paint compelling pictures and couple them with pounding beats and interesting musical turns. The real point of interest in ‘Snake Eyes’, though, is the darkness, which is underpinned by a subtle and sinister mood, characterised by crescendos that benefit from their modesty, in a way that the music of Silversun Pickups does so well.
‘Broad Shouldered Beasts’ brings us back to a Mumford & Sons we are more familiar with, and is probably the song that most resembles the back catalogue. The verses move along in with a classic Mumford rolling feel, and the choruses are sing-along and filled with a wall of sound. This is sure to be a big song with this summer’s festival crowd, but in the context it feels a little too easy.
‘Cold Arms’ is what might be considered the ballad of the album, but, as with much of Wilder Mind, it isn’t what you’d expect. This is dark and melancholic; full of questions. “Maybe the truth’s not what we need,” pines Mumford – there is something jarring in the track that provides the perfect framework for the depiction of a couple in a broken relationship.
The second NYC name-check is ‘Ditmas’, the Brooklyn location feels the right setting for the track which has an element of Gaslight Anthem in it. We’ve returned to the up-tempo dynamic of ‘The Wolf’ and we’re all the better for it.
‘Only Love’ carries on where ‘Ditmas’ leaves off, by way of a lengthy intro, showcasing the electric Mumford & Sons sound that is the defining step forward on the album. The song starts in a place that would fit easily on the previous albums, but erupts into a frenzy of buzzing guitars and clashing drums that add to the vocal hooks. With one track left we’re starting to think the album might end too soon.
The final track, ‘Hot Gates’, is a slow-build of a track, which serves as a satisfactory end to the album, and reinforces the band’s festival headliner credentials, but it doesn’t ever quite reach the heights that it hints at, and that’s a fairly fitting microcosm for the album as a whole.
It’s a tricky business doing something different; Wilder Mind shows that Mumford & Sons are more than capable of plugging in, kicking the fuzz and rocking a sound that will blow people away through their summer shows. Surprisingly, it is the down-tempo tracks where the album stumbles. There is definitely a wilder heart to this Mumford & Sons, but we don’t want to sacrifice the heart for the wildness. The band’s ability to tell stories that carry weight and feeling has been one of their strongest assets to this point, and they have only shown that in patches here.
That said, to dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. If the world does need to step away from the Mumford & Sons of the previous years, having the guts to take the first step is commendable, and it is good to know that this direction could prove very fruitful in albums to come.
Wilder Mind is released on May 4th via Gentlemen of the Road/Island Records.