When Good Bands Go Bland

Mumford and Sons broke out in 2009 with their debut album Sigh No More. Their indie folk rock style was perfect for the scene at the time, which was falling in love with the “Bon Iver Sound”. Their plaintive lyrics and affinity for soft/loud/soft arrangement featuring blazing banjos just worked so well on their album and translated to the stage perfectly. The band was hot from the start.

They followed up their debut in 2012 with Babel, an album that didn’t dink with the established formula. Instead, it doubled down on their strengths and their weaknesses in equal measure. Listeners were both pleased with the familiar and also somewhat bored with it. Still, the album won the Grammy for Album of the Year! However, it seemed the acclaim tightened the spotlight on a band that was already fragile. Soon, the pendulum swung against them and people began to mock and parody their sound with smirking memes like this one:

“Every Mumford and Sons song.”

Now, veteran bands usually develop thick skin to such criticism, but it seemed like Mumford was listening a little too much to the critics. In late 2013 the band announced they would go on an indefinite hiatus. Later the members of the band began referring to their group as “broken up”. Then, in an interview with Vulture, banjo player Winston Marshall was asked if he thought the band had “killed” the banjo. His response?

“I think ‘killed’ is an understatement. We murdered it. We let it, yeah — *$%@ the banjo. I  $@&!-ing hate the banjo.”

Yes, it seemed that Mumford and Sons had, in a sense, collapsed under their own weight. The weight of expectations and the weight of criticism. At least they had made one great album and one decent album and now it was time to move on.

Then something happened. The band got back together and recorded another album. How did they pull themselves out of the swamp they’d been mired in for the last year? They changed everything.

The band moved on from the famed producer who worked on their first two albums (Markus Dravs) and hired James Ford to produce their 3rd album. Ford is known for his work with Simian Mobile Disco, Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine, and Haim. Looking at that list, you don’t see much folk music on his resume. And indeed, the early promos for the album teased something new: the band was wearing leather jackets! They were holding electric guitars! They were wandering around in … a city! It all seemed a very “on the nose” way to announce they had changed.

Yes, the band had shed their folk rock sound entirely in favor of reverbed guitars and synths! Internet chatter wondered if they were going “Full Coldplay”. When the first single dropped, the question was answered. Yes, they were.

Now, on it’s surface “Believe” isn’t a terrible song, it just isn’t a very good one. It sounds almost exactly like a Coldplay song. It has very little of the passion that Marcus Mumford exuded on earlier releases. It just sound like a bland corporate radio single.

And maybe this is just your standard “lead single” release and the rest of the album is more interesting, but that seems a bit far fetched at this stage.

I really like this band and I hope that I like the new album, I really do. But I’m concerned. I’m concerned that this new sound is less of an artistic evolution and more of an attempt to fade into the fray a bit and deflect the critics of their last album. Artists shouldn’t feel the need to respond to critics let alone change their craft because of them. I hope that’s not what Mumford is doing with this album.  In a Rolling Stone article, the band pleads its case, saying that they were just bored with their sound and wanted to try new things, which James Ford encouraged and facilitated. And that’s fine. I’m just hoping that all this grand “experimentation” yielded some more sonically interesting songs that “Believe”.

The new album, Wilder Mind, releases on May 4th.

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