Review: Mumford & Sons Put Down the Banjo

The hootenanny's over and done, y'all.
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The hootenanny's over and done, y'all.
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opinion by PETER TABAKIS

The hootenanny's over and done, y'all. Mumford & Sons, the world's mightiest jug band, now have stadiums to conquer. After rocketing to the big leagues, on the back of American folk sounds, the English group has cast an eye on global domination. This, of course, means they're shedding skin. It's a too familiar narrative, one that exposes the sorry state of modern rock aspiration. A single blueprint — just emulate U2 — has become the gold standard for capitalizing on success. Superior artists, including Kanye West and Arcade Fire, have followed it for the better. The key element to this method of shifting upward is grandiosity. For lesser artists, though, it results in a total abandonment of the very quirks that first brought stardom. This is why Coldplay has eschewed sonic simplicity, and Kings of Leon have polished their scrappiness to a dull sheen. For Mumford & Sons, this means an almost complete roots music uprooting. Never before have I, with intensifying anguish, longed for the relief of a banjo’s metallic tinkling.

Mumford & Sons’ third album Wilder Mind aims to fill cavernous venues, to echo across vast festival fields. But this snoozer is better suited for the bedroom. No, not as a soundtrack for sex (cue an ad for erectile dysfunction). It’s a remedy for sleeplessness, despite the increased decibels. The record has bluster to spare. Wilder Mind is, in fact, gigantic all around. Piano chords crash within the thunder (“Just Smoke”). Drums march in goose-step (“Tompkins Square Park”). Guitars strum with furious rapidity (“The Wolf”), when they don't call to the heavens (“Ditmas”). And Marcus Mumford's voice booms, even when it's into your ear, a shouted whisper (“Believe”). This battering ram of mediocrity knocks the listener to and fro, into a stupor. The ongoing crescendo underneath it all builds to a big fat zero, over and over again.

mumford and sons

Disparage Sigh No More and Babel all you want, but those albums at least showed a simulacrum of spirit and pluck. Boiled down to their worst element, utter self seriousness, Mumford & Sons now lack a fleeting whiff of charm. Wilder Mind, airless to the extreme, plods on, song after saccharine song. Melodies do abound. But they’re wearying, like the mundane hell of children’s tunes, blasted on repeat, throughout a long car trip. Pleasant strings of musical notes turn insufferable in short order, with no easy escape in sight.

If I have to muster the smallest praise for Wilder Mind — to find beauty among the rubble — it would be for its flashes of delicateness. The opening chorales of “Only Love” and “Hot Gates” are plenty pretty. That is, before they’re swallowed by reverberated sonics. “Broad-Shouldered Beasts” and “Snake Eyes,” too, start off promising. And then they buckle beneath the heavy weight of assaultive eagerness. “Cold Arms” stays steady throughout. A nice change of pace, I guess, if it weren’t so factory manufactured. Of the upbeat tracks, “Ditmas” is the finest of the bunch. It also most resembles a triumphant U2 song. So there’s that.

Remember when bands followed success with a shrug? When they veered away from both formula and marketability? See — in the last quarter century — such notable examples as In UteroVitalogyKid AGet Behind Me Satan, and Modern Vampires of the City. Even Achtung Baby, the golden crutch upon which so many have since propped, was once a radical detour for U2. I don’t mean to punish Mumford & Sons for not meeting an impossible standard. And yet, I paraphrase Kanye West. There are leaders. There are followers. I’d rather be a dick than to swallow this.  D-