Last April I did a wee tour of America doing my theo-musicology thing and split my events between speaking about U2 and Mumford & Sons. Speaking about Mumford & Sons, in Dayton University with a brilliant live student band and in Calvin College with video and a huge screen, gave me a ten day opportunity to over-indulge in Mumford music. I really enjoyed it. I caught songs and theological phrases and live performances that were truly inspirational. I enjoyed the experience.
It was in one airport lounge, probably in the midwest, that I came to the conclusion that the next Mumford & Sons record would have to be a change of musical direction. They simply could not get away with banjos and double basses one more time. Now, when they started out this was never going to be a dilemma. There is no way these guys ever thought they would be almost the biggest band on the planet by 2013. I don’t believe they ever saw that coming. Indeed Marcus Mumford has recently said he wouldn’t have his own name in the band moniker if he had to do it again. That’s because he never thought it would ever be such a household name. After 7 million record sales however you are more in the spotlight and, as this band knows too well, in the firing line of the critics wrath.
So, I was right and here is the very different Mumford & Sons third album. It is such a radical shift of direction that there literally are no banjos at all. It was of course a lose lose. Had they stayed with the formula they would have got tanked. If they changed the formula they were going to get tanked!
So, as many reviewers take this opportunity for the Mumford & Sons backlash, what do I think? Well, this is a good record. I have always been fond of Marcus Mumford’s voice and I am enjoying the new shimmering rock backing. The record reveals that this band are great players and were not hiding behind an organic novelty sound. To create such a shift in their art form with such panache is quite a feat and, as I started this paragraph, this is a good record.
The British press might use comparisons with Coldplay and Snow Patrol while the Americans might point to The War On Drugs and The National. The National’s guitarist produced the record and there is no doubt that that has had a influence but the record is probably something more of an amalgam of all of those bands with, if you listen carefully, a huge dollop of Mumford & Sons thrown in. Amidst the full-on near Kings Of Leon-like assaults there are at times more subtle rhythms and delicate touches where the old template can be heard. And of course there are some old style dramatic building climaxes; banjo-less yes but Mumford-like all the same.
It is perhaps not the lack of banjo that cause the lack in Wilder Mind. There is also a lack in the theological rhyming nuggets that set Sign No More and Babel apart for me. After a first listen to Sign No More I was so affected by the rhyming spiritual gems that I suggested that Bono and U2 could retire, the mantle could be handed over. I also cautiously added, however, that before I should start thinking about a Spiritual Journey Of M & S book, as I did with U2, that we would need another couple of albums to see where it all went. As I pour over Wilder Mind I am wondering which songs will fit into a Gospel According To… Mumford & Sons that I am planning for the autumn.
On first listens there might be very few. Yet, let us not be too rash. Mumford might have gotten a little more obtuse. Like when The National disappointed me when the clarity of Boxer was followed by the ambiguity of High Violet so maybe Marcus has become more implicit than explicit. After a few listens I was wondering if it was a Springsteen Tunnel Of Love-like album cataloguing his rather hasty break up with actress Carey Mulligan. Google immediately suggested no as the news sites have just declared that they are expecting their first child.
I have since heard that Mumford is perhaps not the principle lyricist in some of the album's songs which might explain the depressing lyrics sung by a man just married and about to start a family. It might also explain the less spiritual nature of the record. The rest of the band seems to have struggled with the Christian link to Mumford whose parents were Church missioners. Whatever, under the vagueness, there are still words like faith and truth and grace and devil. Some of the lyrics I am drawn to and surmising are:
In the place that's safe from harm
I had been blessed with a wilder mind (Wilder Mind)
You have been weighed you have been found wanting (The Wolf)
I never tried to trick you babe
I just tried to work it out
But I was swallowed up by doubt
If only things were black and white
Cause I just want to hold your tight
Without holding back my mind
Without holding back my mind (Tompkins Square Park)
But when you feel the world wrapping round your neck
Feel my hand round yours
And when you feel the world wrapping round your neck
Don't succumb (Broad-Shouldered Beasts)
And I hunger and I thirst
For some shiver
For some whispered words
And a promise to come (Only Love)
Didn't they say that only love will win in the end (Only Love)
That latter song, Only Love, is perhaps the song that you think might have been written in the days before banjos and explicit faith was jettisoned. Jesus’ Beatitudes get a mention and it might just be that Marcus was reading Rob Bell’s most controversial book in recent Christendom, Love Wins!
All, in all, I would suggest that Wilder Mind is an artistic success. The tricky transition has been made. It should be radio friendly and stadium rockin’ comfortable enough to be a success. For me, will I be listening to it in five years time? I don’t know but by then Wilder Mind Volume 2 might take it to another level!