Album Review: Mumford & Sons Rock Out But Keep Their Sentiment Intact on ‘Wilder Mind’
Rock'n'roll transformations are as old as rock'n'roll. The Beatles made some of their best music post-moptops; Dylan incited helter skelter at the Newport Folk Festival. U2 had Zooropa, and Green Day did Broadway. Evolving -- it's what separates great bands from also-rans.
So enters Wilder Mind, the third studio album from Mumford & Sons, the London quartet whose banjo-flaunting, sleeper-hit debut, 2009's Sigh No More, placed it among the leaders of the then-nascent folk-rock genre and created a huge springboard of buzz. The band followed with 2012's Billboard 200-topping Babel, going on to headline Glastonbury, win the Grammy for album of the year and even play for President Obama. With Coldplay announcing its imminent hiatus and U2 nursing both physical and PR wounds, it was fair to call Mumford & Sons the biggest rock band in the world. The only problem with that, of course, is that they technically weren't a rock band.
Until now. Like an alley-oop to critics and fans, Mumford & Sons are making this one easy: Wilder Mind is undeniably a straight-up rock record, full of distorted guitars and hammered drums. For their April 11 Saturday Night Live performance, the band replaced the sharecropper duds and suspenders with black leather jackets, and likewise, Wilder Mind ditches the banjos, accordions and the group's old folk sound altogether. Where their old songs ran on vegetable oil, these new ones guzzle jet fuel. In only the stodgiest of circles should this be cause for concern: Not only does Wilder Mind reintroduce the band members as rock gods worthy of the title, it does so without changing what fans cherished most about them in the first place: their songwriting, their sentiment, their gusto.
That vibe, the guiding spirit that great bands have, comes into focus on Wilder Mind. For The Rolling Stones it was unhinged id; for U2, searching optimism. For Mumford, it's the transcendence of love. To quote from Sigh No More's opening salvo, "Love, it will not betray, dismay or enslave you/It will set you free." Six years later, frontman Marcus Mumford beseeches the object of his affection to "stare down at the wonder of it all" on "The Wolf," and howls on "Just Smoke," "I thought we were done/That young love would keep us young." Turns out it's not a devotion to twang that defines this band after all. And even with the guitars plugged in, Mumford & Sons remain masters of dynamics, of the signature quiet-loud-explosive progression. "The Wolf" and "Snake Eyes," for example, rumble at the outset, but erupts by the end. Equally unwavering is Mumford's voice. Heard over this new instrumental palette, his baritone becomes even more striking, as delicate as Chet Baker's, as emphatic as Joe Strummer's.
Wilder Mind at times scans like a collage of time-tested rock moves -- Springsteen's gravitas, Mellencamp's heartland pulse, Coldplay's atmospherics. They've borrowed quite a bit from The National, too, including Aaron Dessner, who lent the band both his studio and his familiar circular electric-guitar lines on "Snake Eyes" and other tracks. And "Cold Arms," with its crystalline reverb, bears an unmistakable resemblance to Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah."
But still, this remains a Mumford & Sons record through and through. "Didn't they say that only love will win in the end?" sings Mumford on "Only Love," his bandmates harmonizing behind him. Drums come crashing in, the whole thing swells to a familiar epic climax. Banjos? They don't need no stinkin' banjos.
This story originally appeared in the May 9 issue of Billboard.