Hate all you want on Mumford & Sons’ vest- and suspenders-adorned, banjo-worshipping, stomping, clapping, kick-drumming brand of poser-folk, but at least it was their thing. Not only was that thing a massive mainstream success, but it also put frontman Marcus Mumford on a gradual path to earning his genre bona fides, participating in such legitimate ventures as the film Inside Llewyn Davis and collective project The New Basement Tapes. Having wooed the masses, and with a shot at some cred among critics and purists, the band had a perfect opportunity on its third album to lose the faux-Americana aesthetics, enlist the help of an outside-the-box creative guru, tweak, experiment, and break some new ground. So for Wilder Mind, the group boxed up their waistcoats, left their banjos in their cases, got a real drum set, hooked up with The National guitarist Aaron Dessner and respected producer James Ford and… made a dozen tracks of forgettable, run-of-the-mill stadium rock.
On the surface, Mumford & Sons ditching acoustic instruments for their plugged-in counterparts—in essence, reworking their entire identity at the peak of their popularity—appears to be a pretty bold move. In execution, however, there’s nothing daring about it. Rather than risk alienating the band’s adult-alternative fan following, Wilder Mind shamelessly panders to it with bland Coldplay-aping melodies driven by borrowed Snow Patrol power chords and splashed with Kings Of Leon-style heartland trad-rock. With Dessner on board, Mumford & Sons have accurately mimicked The National’s sense of melancholy and slow-building song structures, but can’t duplicate that group’s compelling, creeping tension or or its delicate contrast of claustrophobic and expansive atmospheres.
While Wilder Mind, overall, may have a darker mood than its predecessors, it lacks the angry, bitter laments that gave the band’s previous folk chant-alongs a dramatic edge. Instead the record tediously wallows in vague relationship dissatisfaction, insecurity, and discontent. The group—dutifully following its overused soft-then-loud blueprint on nearly every song—also appears to operate under the assumption that electric guitars, keyboards, and drum loops can, by themselves, turn dull cuts such as “Believe” into forceful, rollicking anthems. This unrefined game-plan is most evident on “Only Love”: Start with spare, murmured something-or-other about heartbreak, then ride a prolonged pounding, repetitious jam to the finish line. Cut, repeat.
By trying to clobber the audience with huge sounds and relentless rhythm, the foursome hasn’t taken the time to put together the crafty hooks and licks that gave their prior two albums some undeniably catchy moments. Adding absolutely nothing to the vast canon of generic modern arena rock, this rebranding is pointless. With Wilder Mind, Mumford & Sons have morphed from a band that’s easy to either love or hate into a band that’s hard to care much about at all.