Out With the Olde

Mumford and Sons’ new album and the perils of self-reinvention.

Mumford & Sons at Coachella and Lollapalooza.
Ted Dwane, left, performs during Coachella on April 16, 2011 in Indio, California. Marcus Mumford performs during Lollapalooza on Aug. 3, 2013 in Chicago.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images and Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Wilder Mind, the new modern-rock album by the formerly acoustic, arena-packing, and multiplatinum-selling British boho boy band Mumford and Sons, gets me contemplating an alternate-history scenario: What if it hadn’t been Bob Dylan who “went electric” in 1965 but, say, the Kingston Trio?

The Trio was the preppie close-harmony group who first took the folk revival mainstream with 1958’s “Tom Dooley,” which remarkably transformed an 1860s southern ballad about a woman’s vicious stabbing and a man’s (possibly unjust) execution into a sunny perennial campground sing-along.

What would a plugged-in Kingston Trio have sounded like? Despite one band member’s later claim that the result would have been Fleetwood Mac, more likely it would have been along the lines of Freddie and the Dreamers or, to take a wider leap, even Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Either way, the music still would have been in continuity with sounds that were already on the airwaves. It never would have been “Like a Rolling Stone.”

That would have been a disaster artistically, to lose Dylan’s self-reinvention as a rocker and everything that sprung from it. But the strength of the old, banjos-and-handclaps incarnation of Mumford and Sons—who, in case you are new to them, are unrelated but do include a guy surnamed Mumford—has been like the Kingston Trio’s: Out of a secondhand sense of tradition, they fashioned a neatly rounded peg that fit an unfilled hole in contemporary pop culture. They deal in continuities and extensions, not radical breaks.

When we talk about pop artists making transformations in sonics and image, we usually prattle on about the likes of Dylan, Bowie, or Gaga, for whom identity itself is a plastic medium to be melted and warped and recycled. But the Mumfords are a more prototypical story, taking a sound (ho-hey-ho!) that was tiring out and a sartorial sense that never really got going (vests! vests! vests!), and refreshing it just in time. It’s both careerism and self-care—it’s a serious hazard in music to reach the point where even you are sick of you. Wilder Mind is the same kind of soft reboot that Taylor Swift’s 1989 was last year, a mild betrayal of genre in service of a more sustainable life.

A crucial factor is for the artist not to fall behind the arc of their own success: Leave aside folkie followers such as the Lumineers or Of Monsters and Men, and listen for a minute to, say, Imagine Dragons, Zac Brown Band, or One Direction—it’s practically been de rigeur the past couple of years for albums across white pop genres to include a “Mumfordy” track or two, with whistles and twang, stomping feet, and shout-along affirmations. The choice for Wilder Mind, then, was either to take a sharp left or to go buck wild trying to out-Mumford the Mumfordites—with maybe a hundred-dobro orchestra, Irish fighting sticks for percussion, and vocals by choirs of Appalachian child miners.

In other words, it would have been more surprising if the band hadn’t gone electric on this album, amping up the arena-rock influences that were always present while damping down the affectations. With its ringing guitars, keyboard sustains, and occasional face-kicking solos, with its downbeat verses and passionate-outburst choruses, and with its thumping rhythms (kick drum! kick drum! kick drum!), Wilder Mind sounds by turns like (a) Kings of Leon, (b) Imagine Dragons, (c) U2, (d) Arcade Fire, and even (e) the much more dour art-rock classicism of the National—naturally enough, considering that many of the songs were demoed in the Brooklyn garage studio owned by that band’s Aaron Dessner. If you want a quick scorecard, by my lights the results are superior to most of (a) and (b), inferior to most of (c) and (d), and as for (e) … no comment.

The most pleasant surprise about the album to a long-time Mumford skeptic like me is that Marcus Mumford is a better songwriter than I’d been able to hear through all the gimmickry of their first two albums. The dominant theme is the agony of honesty and negotiation within monogamy (in a way that might make some onlookers fret for Mumford’s wife Carey Mulligan), and Mumford often dramatizes it effectively, in strings of anguished soliloquies and single-sided dialogues: “I really wish you would not cry/ I only ever told you one lie/ When it could have been a thousand … It might as well have been a thousand,” he sings on the opening track, “Tompkins Square Park.” 

But the problem for me with practically any current modern-rock album is that the self-serious boy-feelings that suck me in for a song or two become irritating over the course of a dozen tracks. On Wilder Mind, the weariness is compounded by the fact that the Mumfords have mainly traded in their former folk-brand build-to-the-shouty-part shtick for an adaptation of the National’s version of crescendo rock, and after a while both of these patterns come off to me as doing something boring and then doing more and more of it until everybody gets exhausted and stops.

In fact, I wonder if I don’t in retrospect prefer their previous style, which was at least not more of the same of an already abundantly available commodity, as Wilder Mind is, whatever its song-by-song virtues. The most intriguing aspect of earlier Mumford and Sons was its loose connection to church music—it called up for me the strummy folk-rock choirs of my Catholic 1970s youth, which were inspired in part by hippie “Jesus freaks,” Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar.

These were efforts to rejuvenate the church by turning the cosmic free love of the 1960s counterculture into the godly kind. I particularly remember one that advised, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord  … and they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” which was a mission statement that sounded excitingly open and warm-fuzzy to a kid, in contrast with the doctrinaire stiffness of most sermons. It got to me the way that Linus’ full-hearted but quavering-voiced statements of faith in the Charlie Brown Christmas special did (and, even as a grown-up atheist, still do).

In recent years, Marcus Mumford has distanced himself greatly from his background as a preacher’s kid whose parents founded the U.K. branch of the Vineyard Christian movement (of which the most famous stateside adherent was Bob Dylan in the born-again phase of his own identity odyssey) and you’d certainly never guess at his upbringing from Wilder Mind. But within a Christian-folk-rock aesthetic—or even a fiddles-and-mandolins jam at the Irish pub—there’s a meaning to the syntax of repeat-and-build, repeat-and-build: It is a gathering together of a fellowship, ideally expanding the bounds of the community with each cycle and then reaffirming it, swelling its ranks and its spirit to a grand collective cathartic embrace: And they will know we are Christians by our love. Take that same technique and apply it to most modern rock, and it risks sounding like individual self-glorification (or dude-gang-glorification) instead: And they will know we are rockers by our riffs.

Some listeners would say the exception is U2, who not coincidentally also are people of faith, but the gravitational force of Bono’s ego always makes me feel like the Spirit is in his service rather than the other way around. On the other hand, I’ve definitely felt It move me while listening to Arcade Fire: In the best of their thumping mass anthems I can hear the traces of the Butler brothers’ youthful experiences at the Mormon tabernacle as well as Régine Chassagne’s heritage from Haitian festival music. But Arcade Fire’s group charisma becomes a vehicle to reinvent not so much their own identities as that lineage of communalism for an urban secular audience—putting across a sense that their vision of youth culture offers a promise of hope and change, unity and connection, as the best rock bands always have, just like politicians and preachers. Mumford and Sons may have plugged in their guitars but, going by Wilder Mind, they haven’t found a way to jack into that higher current, to replace the kind they’ve left behind. That old-time rock religion very well might be a lie, but without it, you might as well tell a thousand.