A little over a week ago, if you had happened to find yourself on Mumford & Sons’ Wikipedia page, you would have only seen the words “folk” and “folk-rock” next to the website’s definition of the band’s genre. No more–with the release of the quartet’s third studio album Wilder Mind, the umbrella term of “rock” has been added to the page.
Ignoring for a moment the reputation of Wikipedia as a lackluster source for anything of real value, it’s important to note the footnote citations that purportedly support this genre addition link to sites like Time and Billboard. Most reviews of the band’s switch from folk to a sleeker, more accessible modern rock sound surprised–some going so far as to passively chastise Mumford and company for a half-baked reinvention. Still others, like the Time‘s, see a boldness worthy of being praised.
But Mumford & Sons have been busy being just as ferociously unapologetic and genre-bending in their composition since Sigh No More. People seem to forget that the song that put them on the map, “Little Lion Man,” featured a wild array of banjo-shredding and F-bombs–while the rest of the album was a brutishly rugged confession of raucousness.
Mumford & Sons have never been solely a folk band–it was simply the easiest word that could be used to lazily pinpoint their stylistic intricacies. As early as 2007, in an interview with the Herald Sun, Mumford was correcting the mislabeling of the West London folk scene that they emerged from: “It’s not folk really. Well, some of it is, and it’s certainly not a scene. Someone got over-excited about a few bands who live in a hundred-mile radius and put it in a box to sell it as a package.”
Even Babel, while a tamer, steamlined-for-pop version of their grassroots songwriting, was a clear indicator that the group were setting the stage to shed their folk tendencies.
Trading in the pastoral scenes and antiquated cobble-stone roads of their first two albums for the melancholy loneliness of a New York evening, much of Wilder Mind is consequently a hurried rush of unfettered, rock bombast. Opening track, “Tompkin Square Park,” rushes forward on shaky percussion lines towards electric guitar rips that blink like distant streetlights, while Mumford’s bottomless vocals echo his characteristically raw sentiments: “But no flame burns forever, oh no/You and I both know this all too well/And most don’t even last the night/No they don’t, they say they don’t.”
Subsequent highlights, “Believe,” and, “The Wolf,” thunder with flurries of hammer-ons and rabid fits of drumming–their hoarsely roared choruses oozing with an intensity that simultaneously crushes your soul and sets it aglow. From there the record grows exponentially from heavy-handed rock, to a much more contemplative mulling of dreamy piano melodies and fluttering acoustics.
“With a silver crystal on/How well you used to know how to shine/In the place that’s safe from harm/I had been blessed with a wilder mind,” Mumford sings on the album’s title track, his throaty calls ringing out just as robustly alongside the warble of electric guitars as it does with banjos.
“Just Smoke” is about as close as wet get to Babel-esque folk play; its crashing cymbals, harmonized vocals, and quivering strings erupting as the delicate rapture of its crestfallen narrator. Then there is the unpolished ballad, “Monster,” a luminous dirge filled with potent lyricisms that twist your gut into massive knots: “So we were up/Thowin’ dice in the dark/I saw you late, last night, come to harm/I saw you dance in the devil’s arms.”
Mumford’s gravelly vocals appear momentarily out-of-place on listless tunes like, “Broad-Shouldered Beasts,” and “Only Love,” until his tender murmurs crescendo into a battered confession of swelled percussion and self-less love wailed into the Manhattan night.
The album reaches its climax in, “Ditmas,” amidst the feral upheavels of clamorous drums and warm sting of electrics. Gripping the frustration of a fruitless love in one hand and stroking the cheek of his heart’s assassin in the other, Mumford bellows out a poignant narrative that strikes a chord with its honest hopelessness.
Like a dying star collapsing on itself, Wilder Minds ends in the slow-burning finale of, “Hot Gates.” Growing from a somber medley of hushed keys and strings, Mumford’s agonizing vocals grip us by our bleeding hearts and squeeze until we are left weeping like the electric guitars rumbling in the background.
“Let my blood only run out when my world decides/There is no way out of your only life/So run on, run on!” the album’s last words still ring in our ears, edging us on through the desolate night towards a sunrise we can only hope is minutes away–and it resonates just as much with band’s own journey.
Mumford & Sons could’ve spent the next ten years making folk albums, and they probably would’ve been successful as commercially as they have been so far. The danger of throwing around words like “reinvention” is that it creates a illusionary dramatization and expectation of their growth as a band–as musicians. Did they put out the best rock album of 2015? Probably not.
But with the help of James Ford and Aaron Dessner, Mumford & Sons have opted-out of continuing to be the caricature poster-boys of the indie-folk scene that many have painted them as. As virtuously candid in their storytelling as ever, the London gents have returned to us palpably heartbroken–each song slow-dancing its way past us like the wretched ghost of a past lover. But while it’s clear that such love will not survive the night, the carefully honed chops of their new found, unabashedly urban rock sound remains unscathed.
Wilder Mind is out now via Gentleman of the Road.