Mumford & Sons

When Mumford & Sons replaced their suspenders and banjos with leather jackets and electric guitars during the Saturday Night Live show on April 11, the “gentlemen of the road” gave fans a taste of their new rock and roll veneer. Along with the banjos and accordions, Mumford & Sons locked away their folk vibes in favor of a rock sound for their new album Wilder Mind, released May 4.

The album is part of the band’s attempt to reestablish its image. While original fans may be disappointed the group is turning away from the signature banjo that played a role in its rise to fame, Wilder Mind proves Mumford & Sons holds its own in the rock realm. 

The group supplements the tracks with a variety of guitar riffs and drum beats not heard on previous Mumford tracks. In altering their sound, Mumford & Sons displays similarities to other rock groups. They fill songs such as “Believe” with strong atmospherics found in Coldplay tracks and incorporated short, repetitive beats in songs such as “Ditmas” and “Wilder Mind” that resemble instrumentals from The Strokes. 

Despite the changes, Wilder Mind maintains the powerful lyrics and energy apparent in their previous albums, Sigh No More and Babel. In typical Mumford & Sons fashion, the songs on Wilder Mind start off with soft and slow intros. At the chorus, lead singer Marcus Mumford delivers his explosive vigor, especially in anthems such as “The Wolf” and “Just Smoke.”

Their lyrics, which are known for religious and literary references, take a more honest, questioning approach to love and belief in Wilder Mind. In past songs such as “Sigh No More,” Mumford croons to the line: “Love, it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you; it will set you free.” In the new song “Only Love,” the band members seem to question the validity of that statement when they sing, “Didn’t they say that only love will win in the end?”

While Mumford repeats the Shakespeare quote “Serve God, love me and mend” in “Sigh No More,” Wilder Mind is filled with skeptical lines, such as “I don’t even know if I believe” in the song “Believe.” The album’s change in perspective could be because all band members, two of whom had just gotten out of long-term relationships, played a role in writing the lyrics. For past albums, Mumford handled most of the writing.

They continue to evoke a sense of a new belief system in the song “Cold Arms.” While in “White Blank Page” from their first album, Mumford belts the line: “lead me to the truth, and I will follow you with my whole life,” in “Cold Arms,” with a quiet, resigned tone, Mumford declares: “maybe the truth’s not what we need.” Listeners will appreciate the new, bold honesty apparent in these tracks.

A complete and sudden change in image might deter some old fans from listening to the album, but Mumford & Sons certainly caught people’s attention with Wilder Mind. Not only was their alteration attention-grabbing, it also shows they can succeed without the novelty of jamming on a banjo. Their former image may have been fleeting, but their strong song writing and energy are not going anywhere soon.

 

Album: Wilder Mind

Artist: Mumford & Sons

Tracks: 12

Rating: 8/10

It’s difficult to discuss the soundtrack to “Inside Llewyn Davis” without having actually seen the film. So many important aspects of the songs, sequencing and content are often tied to their context in the film, and a viewer’s experience may be different than a listener’s. The soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” comes out six weeks before the film, and the Coens seem confident that the soundtrack is strong enough to stand on its own. Their assumption is not incorrect, as their collaboration with songwriter T Bone Burnett is a gentle, folksy time portal to 1960s New York. The Coens previously worked with Burnett on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which sold seven million copies and won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. 

Oscar Isaac stars as Llewyn Davis, a folk singer attempting to navigate the New York folk scene of the 1960s, and performs many of the songs on the album. Isaac does a good job, especially on the opener, a melancholy rendition of Dave Van Ronk’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Isaac also collaborates with Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons on a cover of “Fare Thee Well,” one of two versions of the song on the soundtrack. 

Another draw to the album is the several contributions from Justin Timberlake. Timberlake makes for a fine folk singer, especially on “Five Hundred Miles,” a rousing collaboration with Carey Mulligan and Stark Sands. Timberlake also joins Mumford on “The Auld Triangle,” an oft-covered Irish standard. The concept of a Timberlake/Mumford collaboration is interesting, but it is not as enjoyable as the album’s other tracks. “Girls”’ Adam Driver also makes a hilarious guest appearance alongside Issac and Timberlake on “Please Mr. Kennedy.”

Fans of Timberlake, ’60s folk and Mumford & Sons will find a lot to like in this collection of repurposed folk tracks. But as the soundtrack to “Inside Llewyn Davis” winds down with a previously unreleased recording of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell,” it is apparent that nothing on the album comes close to capturing the spirit of those sounds as well as the actual songs do. As a result, the Dylan track feels a bit out of place on an album that likely won’t reach the same popularity “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” did years ago.

This Sept. 5, 2012 photo shows the band Mumford and Sons with Emmylou Harris, pioneers of the folk-rock revival movement, on an episode of “CMT Crossroads” on Thursday, Sept. 27. 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

The last three years have been very kind to the West London folk scene, specifically to its flagship ensemble Mumford & Sons. The Celtic-inspired quintet scored a major label record deal within two years of its formation. The group released the surprise debut hit Sigh No More in late 2009. The album sold millions of copies on both sides of the Atlantic, spawning four singles and making the group a major concert draw.

With all of its success, one would think the band could afford to lighten up and expand its sound a little. Instead, the band retreads the exact same weary course with its follow-up album Babel. Employing the same producer, Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire), the album is a carbon copy of Sigh No More. Its 12 insistent, lamenting tracks are identical in tone and presentation to the group’s older album.

Once again the band decides to take on the big subjects, with epic, all-knowing statements and biblical imagery scattered throughout the album. The band’s ambition is commendable, but before long, its ostensible goodwill slips into the realm of self-aggrandizement.

Songs like the opening title track and lead single “I Will Wait” ooze with melodrama, and occasional borderline-idiotic lyrics such as “Your strength just makes me feel less strong” are launched out over chugging acoustic instrumentation in Marcus Mumford’s anguished rasp. Such histrionics make Babel an exhausting experience, causing the listener to wish the band would just spend a nice day at the park.

Some songs attempt to break out of the wannabe-anthemic mold. “Ghosts That We Knew” is a pleasant song with a lilting intro and tender lyrics, but the effect is muted when all of the songs on the album are so emotionally charged. Unfortunately for Mumford & Sons, things get worse before they get any better, reaching a lyrical nadir at “Broken Crown.” “So crawl on my belly till the sun goes down / I’ll never wear your broken crown / I can take the road and I can fuck it all away / But in this twilight our choices seal our fate.”

Where acoustic-based contemporaries such as Fleet Foxes and the Decemberists take a sensitive, bucolic approach to English-inspired folk-rock, Mumford & Sons seem to come straight from the gutter. This could have been a good thing if the band didn’t try so hard to produce the same exact formula with every song.

The album’s final track, “Not with Haste,” tries its best to lighten the mood as the album comes to a close but gets lost in the album’s overarching malaise. An expanded edition of the album contains three bonus tracks, including a cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” which features a guest appearance by the master singer-songwriter himself.

Each of the bonus selections is better than anything on the actual album, showing that the band is capable of delivering quality music. Even so, the additional material cannot justify the $17.99 list price of the CD.

Nevertheless, Babel will probably sell a zillion albums thanks to the Clear Channel powers that be, while admirable new releases by bands such as The Soft Pack and Grizzly Bear languish on record store shelves. So it goes.

Hopefully for subsequent albums Mumford & Sons will try to expand their musical vocabulary.

Printed on Thursday, September 27, 2012 as: New Mumford & Sons album comes up short