Is it fashionable to think that Mumford & Sons are rubbish or are they simply worthy of scorn? You might say they’re easy to slag off but an album as violently anaemic and cloying as Wilder Mind offers little in the way of an alternative option.
Hey, it’s their ‘rock’ album, don’tchaknow?, the banjos put to one side in favour of aping Springsteen, Petty et al. They’ve ‘gone electric’. Exciting. Much has been made of the decision to shelve their trusty hoedown staple but it’s a smart move as it will mean just as much/little when they inevitably dust it off on future albums. For now, Marcus Mumford and his merry men drive slowly – so very, very slowly – toward convention with both hands tightly clasped to the steering wheel. Wilder Mind is safe as houses from the moment ‘Tompkins Square Park’ ambles in with a beat lifted directly from The National. At five minutes and change, it offers the Londoners the chance to tick all the soft rock boxes imaginable, the ‘peak’ of this arriving in a predictable and predictably tame guitar flourish before a final tired chorus eases things out like an old man slipping into a nice warm bath.
‘Believe’, a track that feels scraped from the cutting room floor of Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto sessions, at least catches Mumford admitting that he’s wildly out of his depth as he repeatedly notes, “I don’t even know if I believe”. Granted, he’s ultimately addressing and questioning the intentions of another, but the song feels so forced that you can’t help but take it at confessional value. It’s not a bad track by any stretch of the imagination but it goes a long way to redefine ‘homogenous’. Again, it’s an exercise in box-ticking; the rueful extended intro, the ‘exciting’ guitar lift, the rising percussion, the reiterated-with-gusto vocal line, all searching skyward, all falling short. Ditto ‘The Wolf’, which goes all in on Kings of Leon and Springsteen race-to-the-finish knee-slappin’ Americana. But hey, I guess it’ll sound super awesome live.
Or maybe not. Though these efforts are as transparent as a freshly-cleaned window, at least there’s something approaching life found within their derivative confines. The remainder of Wilder Mind makes for an astonishingly grey listen. “There’s way more space on this record than there was on the last two”, noted Mumford in a recent, typically bland interview with Rolling Stone. “I think all our favourite bands have albums that are really urgent. But they have so much space in them. You listen to an Old Crow album and there’s not a huge amount of space there. But you listen to a Led Zeppelin album and you actually hear the space. All our favourite bands, from Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac to Radiohead, all go about it in interesting ways.” All of which effectively translates to ‘This record is an almighty slog to get through’.
Take a song like ‘Hot Gates’ for example. There’s an initial charm to its Eagles-by-numbers ambling only it refuses to ever really go anywhere. Wilder Mind is a record obsessed with the opening crawl. It’s an album enthralled with hailing the past, desperately clawing at custom and servicing commercial ends. At no one point does it ever come together to carve out a believable identity for a band that has always struggled in such regard. Instead, it is content to trundle along, sleepwalking from one mid-tempo bore to the next, filling space for the sake of it, embracing everything and nothing all at once, the end result immediately beige and entirely forgettable.