Could have, should have, would have.
People have either grown to adore Indie-Folk revivalists Mumford & Sons, or they simply roll their eyes every time they hear a banjo twang. Despite this, their first two albums, Sigh No More and Babel, were both massive critical and commercial successes, with the latter winning the Grammy for Album of the Year and both cementing the notion that banjos could be cool. But if you’re reading this, you probably already know that.
And you also probably know that their third album, Wilder Mind, received widespread pushback from both critics and fans.
The songs on that album warped together into one big generic electric mess, with little more than a few unique tracks to make note of. In short, WM didn’t have the heart or soul of their first two records, and it was monumentally disappointing having been spoiled with the likes of “Awake My Soul” and “Not With Haste” – just to name a couple. (I’ve also spoken about this with some good friends of mine who are also Mumford faithfuls at heart, all of which feel the same way.) There are already plenty of solid, electric rock bands out there who don’t utilize the power of acoustic instruments nearly enough. So why did Mumford & Co. ditch their signature sound and foot-stomping ballads in the first place, let alone return to a new sound that crumbled the pedestal we all put them on?
Who the folk knows.
But now we have their fourth effort, Delta. The release of the singles “Guiding Light” and “If I Say” that preceded the album left me feeling very skeptical. And after listening to the full album about a half-dozen times I’ll once again be sticking to their first two albums exclusively until they get their banjos back in-sync.
The new songs aren’t nearly as literary as those found on Babel or Sigh No More, despite offering brief glimpses of their previously poetic feel. The album has a few moments when Mumford questions his existence and the meaning of it all, and the band does their best to focus on the “Four D’s: Depression, drugs, death, and divorce” as a thematic sword to fall on. But it just doesn’t fit the whole upbeat, ‘let’s pretend that those first two albums never happened’ vibe that the record is trying desperately to convey. You can’t have it both ways. Unless they want to start using electric banjos (if those are even a thing.)
There are a few good songs here, including the title track, “Wild Heart”, and “Rose of Sharon”. But for however respectable they are, the rest of the tracks are mostly forgettable.
Sonically, Mumford & Crew play with a variety of instruments and sounds that blend multiple genres. There are many times when the sound knocks on the door of Generic and gets in bed with Boredom, with tracks like “If I Say” and “Guiding Light”. But then there are songs that grabbed me and made me feel that this was a genuine leap forward for the band, like “Woman” and “Forever”, both featuring hints of sparkling synth sounds, catchy drum beats, hand claps, and even a dose of what sounds like an echoing track of autotune at the end of the latter.
Wait, Mumford & S…ynth hand claps?
Yeah, I wasn’t expecting it either. But honestly, these unexpected moments are some of the best of the album. I only wish that they had dabbled more into the sounds of their Johannesburg EP, too.
The album offers a more enjoyable listening experience for fans of their early work than Wilder Mind ever could, but I have one over-arching critique that will prevent me from looking back on this album with anything other than resting bitch face. Quite frankly, Delta doesn’t feel like it has a point to it. WM was both critically and commercially crucified because the band tossed their pioneering style to the (winter) wind(s). In interviews leading up to the release the band has said that Delta is a culmination of their experiences going on/off tour and fading in and out of the spotlight, citing the new record as their most “ambitious” yet. And I agree with them. But blind ambition is still blind.
This does not feel or sound like Mumford & Sons should by their 4th album. But is that such a bad thing?
I’ve always had mixed feelings on artists trying to be “ambitious” who just end up abandoning the sound that made them unique in the first place. I always admire musicians for stepping outside of their comfort zones, but not if that all but sheds their original identity. Now Mumford is essentially putting on one of those fake mustaches and hiding behind a mask of what could have been.
The experimentation and genre hopping is decently fun to listen to, with Marcus Mumford’s grizzly voice pairing well with either an electric guitar, piano, or drum beat. The handful of experimental songs on the album are among the best, as well, because they tried something new rather than simply beating a dead horse. But that horse isn’t the folk revival sound that they so easily mistake it for. It is the sound of exhausted electric guitars begging for a break. At least to my ears, nothing comes close to standing out like that with which made them global phenomenons at the start of the decade.
Whereas their first two albums felt like beautiful cornucopias of sound and imagery, Delta feels like they just took a little bit of everything they know and threw it in a blender. It’s not the worst album I’ve ever heard, and it’s miles ahead of their previous one. However, if you were hoping for even a slight return to folky form, you won’t find it here.
From start to finish Delta feels like it’s having an identity crisis, a half-hearted mashup combining some of the baroqueness found in their first two albums with the slick studio styling of Wilder Mind.
This isn’t nearly as disappointing as Wilder Mind, but this certainly wasn’t the album that I wanted them to make. The band tweeted the morning of the release that it was their “best” work yet. Bet. This just feels like nothing more than a bunch of noise that was engineered to sound like huge stadium anthems, which makes the band feel like they are creeping dangerously close towards post-Viva La Vida Coldplay status. (Side note, the band employed Coldplay producer Paul Epworth for this album.)
The magic in their previous songs was that they naturally became stadium anthems, rewriting the definition that most of us had of what folk music could be. That luster, sadly, is gone. They are no longer shaking their burly fists at the established music industry. They are kneeling before the king, themselves. It’s unfortunate, but as their tweet also stated, they have plenty more music to come. Let’s just hope by ‘Epsilon’ they remember to at least flirt with what made them Mumford & Sons in the first place.