by John Ellis
I like Mumford & Sons; I really do. Those who believe otherwise aren’t really paying attention. The evidence: My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing them in concert several years ago in Asheville, NC, and I’d love to see them again. I own both, well, all three of their albums, and listen to the first two, Sigh No More and Babel, on a semi-regular basis. Yes, it’s true that I’ve made jokes on social media at the expense of the band, but, to be fair, whatever mean-spiritedness was woven into the jokes was directed at Mumford & Sons’ once-avid-fans-now-too-cool-to-be-fans fans. For example, I recently posted something on Facebook about how Samuel Adams is the Mumford & Sons of craft beer. When I posted it, I understood that unless the reader knew the history of Samuel Adams and craft beer, they would probably assume I was mocking Mumford & Sons, or, I guess, Sam Adams beer. The fact is that I was making fun of those who once championed Mumford & Sons but now turn their noses up at them. You see, Samuel Adams was one of the initial breweries that built, basically from scratch, the craft beer market. Now, however, newbie craft beer lovers will often turn their noses up in condescending disgust when offered a Sam Adams. See the parallel with Mumford & Sons? No. Well, explaining jokes only ruins them. My point stands, however, I like Mumford & Sons; I really do. But, to be honest, I liked them a lot better before they “unplugged.”
Since Samuel Adams (Boston Beer Company) has already been mentioned, I would like to state that I understand Jim Koch’s exasperation. I just don’t think that he expresses it very well, or in appropriate forums. Likewise, I empathize with Mumford & Sons’ decision to go electric and abandon their roots music background. But just because I empathize doesn’t mean that I think it was a wise decision. Watching the same people who built your banjo shaped pedestal tear that very pedestal down must be painful. I get it. But Mumford & Sons didn’t have to take part in the demolition, especially not while they’re still trying to stand on the pedestal.
It’s not that Wilder Mind, the latest release from Mumford & Sons, is bad. It’s just, well, it’s just … just. A little over a month ago, the band was on Saturday Night Live. In his review of the episode, my friend Chris White wrote in Paste Magazine that, “Mumford & Sons released what is essentially the new Coldplay album.” And that’s it. Coldplay is often referred to as “the poor man’s U2,” which, to be clear, is meant pejoratively. Chris Martin and company are not bad musicians, and they don’t release bad albums; they release unessential albums – albums that momentarily flit semi-brightly across the screen, grab your attention, and are then promptly forgotten until Mylo Xyloto is stumbled across while clearing out space in your iPhone’s memory. The thing is, you probably won’t delete it, but that doesn’t mean that it will ever get played again. Likewise, many people are going to buy Wilder Mind and they won’t regret it, but in a few years, they probably won’t remember it either.
Mumford & Sons going electric means mostly nothing, outside of a misguided existential knee-jerk response to the overwrought and comical fury of the anti-banjo crowd, the same crowd who two short years ago were learning how to play the banjo in order to authentically participate in their favorite artisanal *fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-product-you-want* shop’s open mic night. Seriously, Wilder Mind is not Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65. Dylan, the darling of the folk music scene, was pushing people forward and away from groupthink. Mumford & Sons is chasing after a crowd that’s frantic to prove that they’re as cool as their favorite forward thinking barista. Following the crowd isn’t very wise since crowds don’t generally know where they’re going. And this crowd has led Mumford & Sons into the musical landscape of just, well, it’s just … just.
Tied for my favorite track on Wilder Mind is the earnest “Snake Eyes,” one of the album’s singles. For good or bad, and my opinion is “for good,” in the minds of many, Mumford & Sons is connected with earnest and bombastic, and “Snake Eyes” is the song, minus one other song that I’ll get to in a moment, that comes the closest to that pleasing and energizing overwrought comfort that I want from Mumford & Sons. Never mind that the lyrics are best interpreted as unintentional non-sequitors, in fact, that’s some of the fun earnest part. Although I’m not really sure what Marcus Mumford means when he sings “this cruelty/ of youth as you fall again/ Alone, in this compromise of truth” I know that he knows what he means, and, more importantly, he really wants me to know what he means. He is all earnestness and pathos as he leans into the lyrics, and it gives me the courage to pretend that I know what he means. Unfortunately, on most of Wilder Mind, Marcus doesn’t give us the same level of commitment to the earnestness of the seriously nonsensical lyrics that we want from the frontman of Mumford & Sons.
When it comes to the musical bombast that should characterize a Mumford & Sons record, Wilder Mind lets the listener down even more so than it does with the lack of earnestness in the vocals. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that they’re phoning it in; begrudgingly holding it back is probably more honest – there are too many glimpses of the horse wanting to run for it to be considered “phoning it in.” Even on “Believe” and “The Wolf,” the two most up-tempo songs on the album, there is a sense of confused and insulted restraint – as if the band wants to desperately please their fans but no longer know how. As a result, Mumford & Sons has become what amounts to little more than an overly-stated attempt at an under-stated Brit pop-rock band.
Wilder Mind doesn’t completely lack a showcase of classic Mumford, however, even without the banjos. The gorgeous song “Only Love” rides Marcus Mumford’s pleading and committed voice and an ethereal, yet grounding at the same time, organ to a crescendo that captures the band in all of their 2009-2012 bombastic best.
Many of you are going to buy Mumford & Son’s latest, if you haven’t already, and I don’t blame you. I also won’t blame you for rarely listening to it, which is what will inevitably happen for many of the millions who buy Wilder Mind. In the years to come, the post-hipsters who first drove the banjo bandwagon only, without so much as changing direction, redecorated the wagon as anti-banjo will listen fondly and with much enjoyment to Sigh No More and Babel. For those of you for whom that last sentence applies, know that in part, at the least, thanks to you, regardless of what Mumford & Sons does or does not do in the future, your music library will be missing the album that the band should’ve released in 2015. And so will mine. I blame you more than I blame Mumford & Sons.
 I’m not really sure how to quantify “semi-regular” in this context. I have music playing pretty much at all times. I mean, I listen to M&S’s first two albums way more than I ever listen to my copy of Sixteen Stone, for example (and I like Sixteen Stone), but I definitely don’t listen to either of them as much as The Stone Roses’ self-titled album. I guess, if I had to put a number on it, I listen to a M&S’s album at least once every two weeks.