Junk Mail: Mumford & Sons 'Wilder Mind' Album Review
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Maria Jean Sullivan and Caitlin Carter chat about Mumford & Sons' new album Wilder Mind. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Carolyn Menyes: I am a child of the banjo. Well, not really, but since going to college in Appalachia, I've gotten a huge appreciation and love of folk and country music that made Mumford & Sons' arrival to the mainstream music landscape feel SO welcome in 2010. We had a great go of it, Mumford, and then you had to go all electric, and my heart broke.
I expected to HATE HATE HATE Wilder Mind, almost on principle alone. Why mess with a good thing, Mumford? What we had with you was special. And when the lead single "Believe" was released, this sort of faux U2, drippy Coldplay wannabe anthem, I knew I would hate Wilder Mind. What was this drivel? Then, when Wilder Mind first landed in my hands a week ago, I did end up hating it. The album made the 48 minutes I spent with it feel like three hours -- it was just so boring.
But, I don't know, I pushed through it all and I've since listened to this record about a dozen times, and now... I don't know if I can say that I love Wilder Mind, but I've willingly listened to it a lot, and I think I actually LIKE it. I'm shocked.
Caitlin Carter: I also welcomed their revival of folk music when they first arrived on the scene. I could not get enough of them. But I wasn't really all that disappointed when I heard this would be a banjo-less effort. I was also excited to see how The National's sound would influence the album since they hung around that Brooklyn scene while writing some of the record.
When "Believe" dropped, I was disappointed as well. I thought it was pretty bland. However, I saw them perform it on SNL and ended up liking it, and it definitely fits on the album. I honestly think this album is one you have to warm up to and once you do, you'll see that the songs are still very Mumford-y just without banjos. I really like Wilder Mind, but I also had to not contextualize it while listening to feel this way.
Maria Jean Sullivan: Same, same. When Babel came out in 2012 Mumford & Sons stood out to me amongst all of the other obliviously indie releases that year including Grizzly Bear and Cloud Nothings and even The Mountain Goats the year before. I am partial to that banjo jingle jangle myself and can't help feel unfulfilled by the lack thereof and nostalgic for M&S past.
That having been said, I'm feeling your point, Caitlin. I'm willing to give this new Dylan goes electric feel to the (what was) signature M&S sound a try. Heck, they've even got one of those handsome and insanely talented Dessner twins on production proper.
CM: I think part of the key here is to maybe not judge Wilder Mind versus other Mumford & Sons releases, as you ladies said. I liken this album more to something from The National (obviously) or even Interpol. And I think after hours and hours spent with this music, that's why I became really partial to this album. Before I fell in love with folk music, I was just another Midwestern indie rock chick. So, when the opening bars of "Tompkins Square Park" sound straight out of El Pintor, my ears are naturally going to perk up. Coincidentally, I walked by the IRL Tompkins Square Park last night, so that makes me feel really cool.
CC: Like I said earlier, I really think that the bones of each song is still very Mumford. A good example is "The Wolf." Just imagine some banjos and fiddles in there, and it could have fit on Sigh No More or Babel. "Broad-Shouldered Beast" also has that folky feel. What songs do you guys feel were the biggest departure from their old sound and how do you think it worked out for them?
MJS: I like the long-winded tracks "Broad-Shouldered Beast" and "Only Love" for both their potential to be old school M&S songs and new age M&S songs. The beloved banjos were traded for some new instruments, apparently literally, yet the lyrics still tug at your heart strings. Opener "Tompkins Square Park" does the same for me: sprawling vocals, chugging guitars and in the background there I hear very The National-esque percussion dabs. I think without the banjos these tracks could be described as a departure of the old M&Ss or a clear change of direction, an arrival of sorts, say a "plugged in" moment in their career.
CM: As you guys keep mentioning, I think you're right -- the vague essence of whatever Mumford & Sons is remains on a lot of Wilder Mind. I think it's the inherent vulnerable songwriting of Marcus Mumford is still there. I wish I could find the exact songwriting credits on here. I know he had pretty much no hand in "Believe," so I wonder if that's why that song is a total 180 and kind of a stinker.
"Tompkins Square Park" is a glorious, glitzy rock song. I love the driving beat and lush production, as you pointed out. And the lyrics about losing a relationship take me inward and it's really beautiful. "Oh babe / I've never been so lost / I want to hear you laugh one last time" hits me pretty close to home. "Tompkins Square Park" does that thing I love of packaging some really heartbreaking messages into an easily digested package. It's quite effective.
I wish I could put my finger on what that essence of Mumford is, but I hear it all over this album and it helps me to adjust to this new sound. As you guys have pointed out, "Broad-Shouldered Beasts" has some wonderfully determined lyricism and the way Mumford enunciates helps to really drive it all home. I think "Cold Arms" is really very pretty as well. I'm not always sure how well Mumford's voice fits in with this new rock sound (and it's a major gripe my fiance, a former No.1 M&S fan has), but that song is so sweet and quiet that his runs mesh with the layered guitars perfectly. I also love the lack of drums -- that's some old school Mumford!
Maybe it's the emotion of the music that makes Mumford & Sons Mumford & Sons, but I think it's also the way that a song builds. The soft to booming ebbs and flows of "The Wolf" are so classic Mumford that even with drums and a thrashing guitar, the track is unmistakable. That song is a MAJOR standout here.
CC: "The Wolf" keeps getting stuck in my head, so I think that's a good sign that they still have that impeccable songwriting foundation. I think the Mumford-ness is the melodies, expansive choruses and, as Carolyn said, the build up.
One song that is definitely an instrumental departure from the band's old sound is "Monster," and I think the song is great. Love the line, "So f*ck your dreams / And don't you pick at our seams / I'll turn into a monster for you / If you pay me enough / None of this counts / If your dreams cloud up." The idea of having to give up some of your personal ambitions to become one with the person you love/plan to live your life with is a theme that I really haven't seen explored much in love songs but is really relateable.
MJS: Yeah actually I not only enjoy but appreciate "Monster" in all of it's realistic rawness. The tone is beautifully somber and the guitars ruffle in and out of the track, staging themselves as more mature cousins of those old fluttering banjos everyone is remiss for. "Monster" bleeds perfectly into "Snake Eyes" which again features more than subtle The National drumming and guitar licks and relatable lyrics. There is also still a violin. The violin here serves as the main line between folk and indie rock. Could the violin in this case be the last hint at the old M&S sound we keep referring to? As it stands, the violin is certainty more common place in folk than indie rock, for the most part. Certainty more sophisticated than the banjo, to some.
They shed a few instruments, kept a few and became more polished sonically. For lack of a better descriptor, M&S grew up a bit on Wilder Mind. They grew into a sound that seems more fitting for the amount of album sales they saw with their first two efforts.
CM: I think "Monster" is more lyrically interesting that it is sonically. I want to like that song after y'all keep praising it so much, but I think it drags a little bit; the tempo is probably my least favorite of all the tempos out there. Just slow enough to keep you from grooving but just fast enough to keep away from pure ballad territory. As I said, I think Mumford's voice fits in well with the quietness of the track, but there's nothing else to really grab onto. The lyrics are wonderful, but this album is full of heartbreak and love and wandering that this one just falls through the cracks to me.
"Snake Eyes," however, is wonderfully layered and has a bit of a hook for me to grab on to. Mumford & Sons do hooks SO well and it's a little bit of a shame that Wilder Mind lacks them. Maybe that's why "The Wolf" and the ballads ("Cold Arms," "Only Love," "Hot Gates") are my favorites. "The Wolf" bites and is SO catchy and the ballads don't need that to be successful.
I do wonder about the commercial viability of Wilder Mind, which you just brought up, Maria. Mumford & Sons had huge successes with its first two albums, which is fairly unusual for a rock band. Thus far, "Believe" has peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100. I'm sure they're aiming for a No. 1 album, but do you think the public is going to latch onto this? Do we NEED another Coldplay? One is more than enough, right?
CC: I think people will still go out and buy this album off the Mumford name alone, so I'm sure it will do well commercially. There have been worse albums from other well-known artists who've changed sonic direction that still end up going to No. 1 on name alone. As to your point about needing another Coldplay or U2, I think that Mumford-ness we've been speaking about keeps them from being "just another blah blah." It could be the vocals, but this album doesn't sound like a rip off of any other band to me.
Now on to songs that didn't do as much for me...
"Hot Gates," was a little flat for me, but I think it could be that it was put as the closer. I wish they would've closed with something less somber. "Ditmas" also didn't grab me that much initially because the melody/cadence seemed like something they've done before, but the lyrics are beautiful and the song does pick up in the end.
MJS: I think you just solidified it for me, Caitlin. It's Marcus' vocals that keep me from thinking, "wait, is this Kings of Leon?" They have been called Coldplay and Snow Patrol recently for their having plugged in. But this isn't 1965 and people are not annoyed that they merely plugged in, but tuned out as well. There really is no need for another indie rock outfit, right now or in general. And by playing the banjos and working on prolific folk projects like Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack and The Basement Tapes M&S strategically strayed from being lumped into that perfectly boring box.
But they ditched that and what we have left is a different yet familiar record that is possibly too polished to be a true M&S LP but too, well, basic to be a game changer.
Specific tracks to this point are "The Wolf", title track "Wilder Mind" and "Ditmas". The latter of which I really, really wanted to be a good track, seeing as it's penned after Aaron Dessner's own neighborhood.
CM: Ditmas Park is one subway stop away from me, but that song makes me never want to go there again. It's so BLAND. Mumford's voice continues to be the most intriguing thing about Mumford & Sons' new sound. I still think he can get a little overpowered with all the other music going on, which is why I like it best when there's a notable quietness to the song as well.
The parallels to Coldplay, Kings of Leon, etc. got me thinking... why do rock bands oftentimes start off as so different and interesting and innovative and then migrate to this basic adult alternative sound? I don't hate it as a genre but it feels so standard. I miss the piano-led quite Coldplay, the raucous Southern KOL and now I have to miss my goofy folk Mumford & Sons. :(
I think Mumford & Sons felt pigeonholed before and wanted to breakout somehow. You can see it in the (hilarious) music video for "Hopeless Wanderer" from Babel. It starts off as something you'd totally expect from M&S and eventually devolves into Will Forte humping an upright bass.
So, you know, doing this kind of music was a reliable route to take. When you compare it to something from Coldplay or The National or whoever, it's totally good. When you compare it to old Mumford & Sons well, it lacks heart (and stones).
CC: I wouldn't say it lacks "heart" as it is a very emotional album, but I think it lacks that spirit that was present on their first two releases. I think this album is still closer to The National than it is to newer, blander (is that a word?) KOL or Coldplay, so to me it still feels interesting. As far as the other bands that have gone that route, I can't see Mumford completely sanding off their rough edges. I think they'll keep trying to innovate going forward.
MJS: This record wouldn't be so unremarkable if it had at least one track with a banjo. Maybe even two for good measure. That way you could see, feel, hear their transitional intentions rather being basically bombarded with melodies you weren't in the mood for. I wanna stomp my feet. And I think they want to, too. Look how much fun those comedians had in that video you shared, Carolyn. Is this it? Is the future of Mumford & Sons basic alt rock instead of bombastic folk?
It's not that this record is bad per say. It's got a few more memorable tracks than others, great harmonies and amazing production. But I can't help feel like I've heard it before. All of it. And it was boring the first time.
CC: Wilder Mind isn't as much of a departure from their banjo-toting first two albums as it may seem. The songwriting is still very recognizably Mumford. The lyrics across the board are pretty stellar. My only complaint is that a few songs felt a little predictable and bland. I'm totally okay with the band going different directions, but I hope they eventually decide to fall in love with folk again and reimagine it in the way only Mumford & Sons can so that it doesn't feel overdone when they go back to it.
MJS: Bring back the banjos, even if just every now and again. I commend you, M&S for your bravery on trying new things, new sounds, new instruments. But as the old saying goes: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
CM: At the end of the day, I have mixed feelings about Wilder Mind. On its own merits, it's a very commendable The National record. I think some people may complain about the relationship-heavy lyrics, but I'm personally always down for a breakup album.
Against the merits of Mumford & Sons' first two albums, I'd probably just totally leave Wilder Mind behind. I miss the banjo and the piano and the passion so much.