ALBUM: Wilder Mind ARTIST: Mumford & Sons
Album release date: May 4, 2015
Obliging but unsatisfying
Wilder Mind is Mumford and Sons’ third studio album to date, released in May 2015. Consisting of 12 tracks, Wilder Mind is a tightly produced, predictable alt-rock album. Electric guitars, electric bass, synthesizers, drums and keyboards vibrate through the tracks, giving way to raucous swells and passages during some songs and then dipping down with a more elegant and controlled touch in others. Many of the songs are rather densely textured, making the album enjoyable to listen to; but although sonic variety is not lacking here and the old boys are deftly sowing their oats in this edgier terrain, a certain lack of personality besmirches the project, like a smudge on a windowpane, or like a mildly burnt cup of coffee. For all the technicality and poise of Wilder Mind, it feels shrink-wrapped to the point of obscuring the men behind the music.
Grandiose amplification, watered-down semantics
This lack of vibrancy comes through most clearly in Mumford’s urbane lyrics. His voice is golden on this album, with tones emerging that captivate and carry; but the words he sings signify little. A far cry from his previous songs – rife as they are with references to Shakespeare, Chesteron, and Steinbeck – this collection of songs totters around obligingly through themes of doubt, frustrated love, and truth: but without ever actually hitting any life-giving nerves. There are flashes of more imaginative and religious thought, but nothing goes deep. “I’ll be a whisper on the wind,” he says on Just Smoke, at which point my shoulders sagged sadly. Whatever happened to, “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy, I could have won”, or, “Do not let my fickle flesh go to waste, as it keeps my heart and soul in place: I will love with urgency, but not with haste”? Lyrics like those – lyrics charged with imagery, symbolism, beautiful language, tenderness and violence – are the primordial heartbeat beneath the most attractive and memorable songs, the ones that impress themselves upon us. Those kinds of songs characterized Mumford’s first two albums, and presented a Maritime vulnerability to the world that seeped through in their unadorned musical approach. On this album, a glaring vacuousness seeps through instead, made all the more obvious by the grandiose amplification.
A vanilla progression
It feels superfluous to point out the fact that this album reminds me of Coldplay, U2, the Strokes, the Allman Brothers, and Radiohead: you’ve probably already heard that from both outraged “fans” who can’t fathom how Marcus Mumford could have allowed himself to fall away from the 4/4 foot-stompin’ thud of traditional folk-rock doctrine; as well as elated “fans” who have been griping over how “utterly unoriginal” Mumford has become (anyone else notice how it’s become hip to hate on Mumford, or anything else that the majority loves?) Admittedly, I myself couldn’t keep from comparing the lyrical content on this album to that of their previous albums: perhaps because I am a lyricist, and put great emphasis on words, I felt the banality of Mumford’s writing in a particularly keen way. There’s a good chance I failed to appreciate the instrumental adventurousness of this project, if there is any to be appreciated; perhaps if you were to ask a percussionist, a guitarist, or a bassist their opinion on it, you’d get a much more enthused response. Ultimately, upon listening to it closely myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that all the hype surrounding this new album is likely more of a reaction to brand development (or devolvement, depending on where you stand) and less of a response to challenging new music.
Wilder Mind is a pleasant, well-made album. It isn’t nearly as risky/fool-hardy as “they” were saying it was. It is, rather, a controlled, somewhat vanilla progression made by Mumford & Sons into a broader sound: if only the broader sound had been at the service of carrying an even broader message, this album could have been powerful.