Wilder Mind, Weaker Album

June 11, 2015

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.

wildermind

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 

 

 

U2’s Prophetic Rage ‘N’ Roll: Rethinking “Sunday Bloody Sunday” Next To “Raised By Wolves”

June 1, 2015

If pushed to list the top 10 U2 songs from their expansive catalog, I would be hard pressed not to put “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at or near the top spot. The song converted me to the passionate crusade for justice that is a U2 trademark. It’s military drum cadence embodies what, in the evocative coinage of Joe Marvelli’s analysis, is an “aggressive pacifism.”

This song too cannot be divorced from the theater that is live rock n roll and Bono’s skills as a rock ‘n’ roll frontman. Their mastery of the performative in rock’s transcendent scope is why U2 is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band to date. Their soaring belief in the power, as they sang, of “a red guitar, three chords, and the truth” allows them to harness this transcendent reach of rock ‘n’ roll in way that no other band does with the same consistency.

They are masters of the theatric and the performative and have spun their experiences into a body of work with an audacious reach beyond the limits of the present. No doubt, it sometimes misses in overreach. But when it connects one can be transported out of oneself to consider something bigger, grander, and “to come” in the biblical sense of an eschatological horizon akin to a “New Year’s Day.” But seeing this horizon is difficult in the midst of the raw matter of human life together. It is in this real context that U2 has been able to plumb rock’s depths of expressing anger, hope, and redemption. With its plaintive cries for a future beyond our destructive selves, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is such a song.

In a 1987 World in Action documentary for Irish television, the Edge observed that “a lot of people think rock ‘n’ roll should be escapist, but why shouldn’t it face what is actually happening?” For a group of four young men coming of age in the midst of “The Troubles,” this question was both urgent and daunting. 1983′s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was a bold answer. It teems with raw fury capturing the zeitgeist in which the post punk Irish quartet emerged. In the same documentary, Bono admits that, “We wrote ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ in a rage.”  The rage is palpable in the pounding drum beat and the exasperated exhaustion of the opening line. And yet, it balances its analysis of the human condition (“trench is built within our heart”) with a horizon of hope (“tonight we can be as one”).

2-white-flag-bono

The song aural evocations are certainly strong but it is in the live performance that the song’s sound and fury are fully incarnated. For their often endless tinkering in the studio and the occasional brilliance that results, it is their adept handling of rock as performative theater in concert which signifies their greatness. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is an illustrative case study. The iconic performance remains the one from the Under a Blood Red Sky concert film. Around the three minute mark near the end of the Edge’s guitar solo, a jackboot shod Bono emerges from the background with the white flag atop a huge pole, high-stepping to Larry Mullen, Jr.’s militaristic drumbeat.   He forcefully plants the flag and entreats us to “let it fly,” leading the call to nonviolence by declaring “no more!”

The flag is a universal symbol of the cessation of hostilities and maybe a particular reference to the Irish Catholic priest, Edward Daly, who waved his white handkerchief aloft as others carried the unarmed wounded to safety in 1972′s horrific killing of 14 protestors in Derry, Ireland by an elite British paratroop regiment. U2′s use of the sonic and the visual connect concertgoers to a broken world. This version has a youthful exuberance that buoys the edginess of the song. There is a generational pushback that proclaims a prophetic NO to the cycle of violence. It embodies the headiness of youth spurred by dreams of changing the world.

But, as the lyrics lament, “how long must we sing this song?”  As young people navigating our enlightenment with our restless energy, we can be tempted to think that our attention alone is enough to wrest history from the violent. Yet this song is a staple of the band’s canon and a fixture within their live shows.  heir continuing relevance as four (now aging) lads bearing the self-professed mantle of “three chords and the truth” emerges as they successfully prevent the song from being a nostalgic greatest hits performance.  Instead, the performance evolved with the band’s own expanded gaze.  Birthed from “The Troubles,” it has come to speak to Beirut and Nicaragua, Soweto and Sarajevo, Baghdad and Tehran, and beyond.

In 2015′s Innocence and Experience tour, a stripped down “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has been paired with “Raised by Wolves,” displaying its ongoing, evocative weight.  I am moved by the bare tone in this new haunting rendition. It is different than the militant exuberance of their 20-something selves. As a middle aged adult myself, it strikes me as the song of those who have lived long enough and seen too much to be naive about the human condition yet refuse to release their white knuckled grip on hope, vowing to “kick the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.”

Juxtaposing it with the raw, new track “Raised by Wolves” serves as forceful reminder of the harsh context in which this hope must be spoken and lived with a vulnerable courage.  It is a world in which the fervor of our beliefs can be twisted in on ourselves and spring outward in a bloody “purification” of those who oppose us.

It is a world in which the cry from the new song, “I don’t believe anymore…” is both an expression of exasperation at nihilism and a prophetic refusal of causes and crusades no matter how religiously infused.  Thirty two years on from its first performances, this song is still “not a rebel song,” but is a call to all of us to face the human condition without blinking and with sober, relentless hope.  It is not resignation to the inevitable but a call to action.  As Bono invited in U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle, “…if you’re the praying kind, turn this song into a prayer.”  It is lament. How long? It is petition. No More! It’s shrill and stilling focus on violence somehwere remains a prayer for an end to violence everywhere. Amen.

-Rick Quinn