As the butt of many music fans’ jokes and the subject of a Twitter account dedicated to “spreading awareness of the fact that [they] are a despicably bad band”, Mumford & Sons are among the most reviled musical acts of our age. In summary, their charge sheet reads as follows: first, Mumford & Sons make bland, conservative music beloved of that dreaded figure, the ‘Mondeo Man’. Second, Mumford & Sons are entitled posh boys by virtue of all four members having attended fee-paying schools. And third, they engage in the most egregious form of cultural appropriation by being British musicians who play banjos and sing in American accents.
And yet a more reasonable music follower will look at that charge sheet and find them ‘Not Guilty’ on all three counts. Bland and conservative? Mumford & Sons’ mix of Americana and weirdly rave-like four-to-the-floor rhythms might be a lot of things, but boring it is not. Entitled posh boys? Well, it seems unfair to single out Mumford & Sons in what appears to be the growing dominance of privately-educated people within the arts. And cultural appropriation? A pedant would claim that this charge could be made against the majority of British pop music.
Nonetheless, one wonders if Mumford & Sons have sought to address at least one of those criticisms on their new album, Wilder Mind. Its release has been preceded by talk of a reinvention of sorts: a move away from their trademark Bluegrass-on-amphetamines sound and the hiring of two modish yet dependable producers: James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Haim) and The National’s Aaron Dessner.
But this isn’t Mumford & Sons’ equivalent of Achtung Baby. Their reinvention is merely an act of subtraction: this is the Mumford & Sons album on which not a single banjo string is plucked. This might seem like a welcome development but it soon becomes apparent that Mumford & Sons without the banjos is rather like Samson without his hair: minus their trademark instrument, their songs are shorn of all their personality. What’s left is a dreary, monochrome blend of trebly lead guitar, drizzly, distant-sounding string arrangements and insistent-yet-completely-unfunky basslines.
It’s far from a disaster. Every one of its 12 tracks occupies a wafer-thin space between ‘average’ and ‘fine’. Wilder Mind is at its weakest when the arrangements remind one of other, better bands. Opener Tompkins Square Park has the same propulsive forward motion of The National’s uptempo numbers, but it’s completely devoid of that band’s lyrical acuity. Snake Eyes opens with some tingling post-rock guitar that could pass for Mogwai before it develops into an anaemic form of Krautrock. Believe is reminiscent of one of Coldplay’s tubthumping ballads, but it lacks Chris Martin’s flair for melody.
If Mumford & Sons were looking for a paradigm shift on Wilder Mind, they’ve certainly achieved that: it does sound very different from their previous two albums. Unfortunately, in doing so, they’ve produced the most crushingly average album of the year so far.