Wilder Mind, Weaker Album
June 11, 2015 · Print This Article
If you were momentarily distracted after starting Wilder Mind, the third album from Mumford and Sons, you could be forgiven for a jolt of surprise when Marcus Mumford’s voice emerges after the intro on “Tompkins Square” rather than Ben Gibbard’s. The percussive pace with electric guitar accents that moves this unremarkable song’s narrative about fleeting passion sounds much more like a Death Cab for Cutie production [or Coldplay or U2 –ed] than what we have come to associate with Mumford and Sons.
Notably missing from the album are banjos and any hint of the frenetic folk rock from Sigh No More and Babel. With two albums under their belt, Mumford and Sons had a distinctive sound; a jangly amalgamation of backwoods bluegrass meets the evangelistic bombast of a street corner Salvation Army band.
In the first two albums, the dizzying pace of the acoustic cacophony seemed temporarily bound together by a tenuous rhythm that could careen into chaos at any moment. These albums teemed with life. In fact, the band seemed to play as if their very lives depended on it, as if our lives depended on it. That virile recklessness is missing from Wilder Mind.
This doesn’t make Wilder Mind a bad album. It is different in significant ways. The songs are various meditations on the mystery of relationships, some disappointingly formulaic (“Tompkins Square” and “Just Smoke”) while others more insightful into the complexities of negotiating one’s self-interest with vulnerability to another (“Snake Eyes” and “Cold Arms”). Disconnection and doubt haunt these songs like they haunt our fragile human couplings. This is where the perhaps unintentional rhythmic similarity of “Tompkins Square” to Death Cab hits like “Soul Meets Body” hurts Wilder Mind. The songs are solid overall but lack the descriptive vulnerability of albums pondering similar themes.
There are hints of what propelled the Mumfords first two albums and formed a passionate following. The third track on the album, “The Wolf,” has flashes of the previous albums but is tightly and meticulously produced. It incites no fear that the music will escape the boundaries of its production. Fans transfixed by the honest engagement with religious themes of grace and doubt in the early albums will appreciate the track “Only Love” with its themes of hunger and thirst and the promise to come in the seeming elusiveness of love—with both the lower and upper case L.
The question of how to assess the album hinges on how such a question is contextualized. Is it a success or a disappointment? A departure or an evolution? Taken on its own, as if the previous albums hadn’t existed, Wilder Mind is a solid, tightly produced, and overall pleasant listening experience. It is a good album that rewards several listens. But it is not great and, as mentioned, its themes and tones have been done better by other bands.
Is it a disappointment? That depends on how we answer the question of the artist vis a vis entertainer. It is necessary for the artist to risk and venture out to honor creativity and vibrancy. The expectations of fans conversely can express a desire for an artist to stay in the mode where the glow of our first love for them was illuminated. A Springsteen may have arrested our attention by capturing the restless angst of young people stuck in an economically and imaginatively depressed town, but is it fair to expect him to channel this into late middle age?
For bands to move beyond our expectations seems like a broken promise, a rupture in our relationship. Ironically, these themes of individuals who grow apart but stay together are explored in several of the songs in this album. We are in a relationship with the bands we love and those mirror all other human relationships. When the Mumfords went electric, it lacked the seismic shock of Dylan doing the same five decades ago. That mere voltage means a sound more “meh” than the veracity of their folked-up first two outings says a lot about the world we live in and why the new pop-folk revival remains strong.
Hopefully, the experimentation of Wilder Mind is a creative detour that leads to a wider mind for the band’s future. In the short term, this may not feel like a step forward, but if the departure from the previous road leads to new vistas of creativity in the future then it could prove valuable as a piece of the artists’ ouevre. As a selected piece of entertainment viewed on its own, it is unremarkable. “I Will Wait” and see. What about you? — Rick Quinn @apophatic1