Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons

mumford and sons 2

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[1]. 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 and sons 1Mumford & 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.


[1] 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.

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8 thoughts on “Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons

  1. I completely appreciate where you’re coming from having lived in Boston in the late 80’s early 90’s and watching Sam Adams transition from artisan to national sensation without sacrificing any integrity whatsoever.
    Also, my talent buyer partner at GOTC in Chicago brought a young traveling band desperate to fill their calendar into my buddy’s boutique Chicago Venue “Villains” about 4 years ago, to do a spontaneous show in front of about 40 hockey game watching drunkards. They were called Mumford And Sons:) woke up the next day and they were the biggest band in the world without sacrificing any integrity:)

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    • Thanks for reading, and thank you for your comment. I will happily drink a Sam Adams, and I happily listen to Mumford & Sons. The rhetorical rejection (because of course, many of those mocking Mumford bought the album – which I guess could apply to me now) was as swift as the crowning of Mumford & Sons. It seems like just yesterday my Facebook newsfeed was filled with comments from people falling all over themselves to be the first to rave about this new band. Some of those very same people began openly mocking the band not long afterwards.

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  2. I do wish music could be enjoyed without people feeling like they have to tear down everybody else’s enjoyable music.

    Jesse & I have had several conversations about this. He was never a huge Mumford fan, but we have mutual friends who were driving the Mumford & Sons train during the early Sigh No More years …. then turned their backs on Babel, and probably despise Wilder Mind now that the tide of public opinion has turned.

    Sure, music tastes change; all of us grow up and realize what we thought was “awesome!” is actually “pretty good.” But it’s annoying how many of the people I know change their music tastes based on what other people think they should be.

    Screw that. I’m listening to Wilder Mind right now as I type this. It’s fine. It’s no Sigh No More, but you know what? These guys are still writing music, and I applaud that. And I’ll support it with my dollars. If the worst thing that ever happens is that Mumford and Sons sounds like U2 and Coldplay now, it’s not such a bad world.

    At least it’s not the latest Muse album. *blech* 😉

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    • It was a fine line for me to walk, but hopefully with the review it’s apparent that my problem isn’t really with the album, but with the people (I could’ve named names) who, for no apparent reason, almost suddenly began slamming the very band that they had been praising the day before. I began noticing this almost two years ago. I really enjoy listening to Mumford & Sons’ first two albums, and am not afraid to say so. I’ve read comments slamming Sigh No More from some of the same people who were falling all over themselves to let everyone know how much they loved it when it came out. Time and distance does supply perspective, but five years is not enough time to justify the 180 degree reversal that I’ve seen from some people.

      It should be obvious, I hope, based on this blog and the music sites that I write for, that I rarely write negative reviews, and even though I don’t particularly like Wilder Mind, I didn’t want this review to be negative. I guess, considering my overall opinion of the album, that was a fool’s errand on my part. I agree with you, “if the worst thing that ever happens is that Mumford and Sons sounds like U2 and Coldplay now, it’s not such a bad world.” Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Oh, and do you think “Broad-Shouldered Bests” reminds you of some of the tracks from The Restoration, especially from Constance? It’s playing right now and I can’t escape the thought…..

    And yeah – I took your review to be more negative of the people who want to rob other people of their joy when listening to M&S or any other band that was hot with the hipsters before it fell out of favor. I think overall it’s not that strong of an album, but bands are like friends: I’m willing to put up with some serious flaws once I build a good friendship with someone, because they’re worth knowing.

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  4. […] Of the other two omissions, Sound & Color is the one that’s universally recognized as one of the year’s best, so far. I disagree. Quite adamantly, in fact. To me, Sound & Color sounds like Brittany Howard has spent the time since their debut album being famous and not on improving as a musician and songwriter. Mumford & Sons, on the other hand, has had their latest release almost universally dismissed. I am no exception. No reason for me to explain why, though, because you can read my review of Wilder Mind *here.* […]

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