“He’s more machine now than man.”
— Obi-Wan Kenobi
“I’ll turn into a monster for you / If you pay me enough”
— Mumford & Sons, “Monster”
On the surface, Mumford & Sons appear human. Sure, the pseudo-rustic garb they often sport does give the impression that they are a gaggle of Urban Outfitters mannequins brought to life, but on most accounts, they check off all the boxes under the homo sapiens description. Yet, over time, signs have started to crop up, signs that suggest these men are not quite what they seem: that they are, in fact, highly lifelike automatons bent on the overtaking the musical world, one rowdy song after another.
Once upon a time — the time being 2009 — Mumford & Sons were an unassuming bunch of West London lads with a bandolier full of anthems and a desire to share them at venues around the United Kingdom. Little did they know that 2009’s Sigh No More would become a global juggernaut, chugging on the fuel provided by mega-hit singles like “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave”. Suddenly, the band was being named alongside outfits like the Avett Brothers in the uptick of interest in “roots” music. Headlining sets at festivals and sold-out shows soon became the norm.
To be clear, what Mumford & Sons do can’t really be called “roots”, “folk”, or “Americana”, exactly. Yes, the instrumentation — guitar, banjo, upright bass, and piano — does hearken back to times bygone, but in songwriting structure these guys are basically alternative rock. Simply put, if you replaced the group’s default acoustic instruments with electric ones, you’d have an act that would cozily fit on a double billing with Nickelback. This lack of genre cred doesn’t have anything to do with their country of origin, although their West London background is somewhat telling in their bland brand of populism. In his otherwise uncharitable review of Sigh No More for Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner correctly identifies that the name Mumford & Sons itself is “a play at quaint family businesses run by real people in real small towns, trades passed down through generations: both independent (yes, as in indie) and commercial.”
Sigh No More is a good but not great acoustic pop/rock affair, one whose earnest and anthemic choruses are ripe for getting stuck in your brain for weeks on end. That record’s less successful followup, 2012’s Babel, largely follows the established blueprint, but its weaknesses vividly highlight the frequent songwriting screw-ups that plague these Brits: predictable song structures, uninventive instrumentation (their banjo player appears to know only one picking pattern), and clunky-to-awful lyrics. From lines like “I came home / like a stone” to the disturbing “I took the road and I fucked it all the way”, Babel made it clear that these guys could benefit from an introductory composition course or two.
Mumford & Sons pulled a swift one in shielding the public from their weaknesses — to say nothing of their increasingly visible robotic interiors — through the release of the hilarious video to “Hopeless Wanderer”, which depicts Jason Sudeikis, Ed Helms, Will Forte, and Jason Bateman as parodic stand-ins for the Mumford boys. This music video is the rare gleam of humanity in what is a largely generic but emotively delivered discography. The band sing-shouts lines like “Hold me fast / I’m a hopeless wanderer” with the sincerity of a robot “learning to love”; it’s easy to tell that they can identify the emotions they’re expressing, but their loud delivery is indicative of overcompensation rather than honesty. The goofiness of Sudeikis, Helms, Forte, and Bateman can only go so far in covering that up.
Now, with the release of Wilder Mind, the group’s third LP, a core facet of the Mumford & Sons project has been largely lopped off: the build. Sigh No More and Babel, for all their weaknesses, do one thing well, which is nail the build up to an explosive chorus. Sure, the band wears out that formula to death over the course of those two LPs, but one can’t fault them for knowing what their few strengths are. Curiously, however, while Wilder Mind represents the band’s shift into electric instrumentation and mostly straightforward alternative rock, it’s also their most lethargic outing thus far. The amount of stadium-filling choruses and arms-around-shoulders camaraderie has decreased, and the number of mid-tempo, faux-introspective verses has increased. The decision to put out “Believe” and “The Wolf” as the two lead singles is a smart and deceptive move, as both are the liveliest things here by a long shot. By contrast, album closer “Hot Gates”, potentially a reference to the Battle of Thermopylae so famously staged in 300, simmers rather than builds to its limp finale, a strange tack given that these are the guys that wrote a chorus like the one on “Little Lion Man”.
As comic Eli Braden cheekily put it, with “Believe” Mumford & Sons “went from pretending like it’s 1860 to pretending like it’s whatever year Kings of Leon were popular.” Yet the superficial change in genre and the trading-in of the banjos for distorted guitars is just that: superficial. On choruses like those found on “Believe” and “Broad-Shouldered Beasts”, it’s easy to imagine that, perhaps in an earlier iteration, it was being written on acoustic instruments. But whereas the Mumford men previously sought domination over the roots genre, now they’ve got their targets affixed on stadium rock, their true home all along. Coldplay best be ready, because not too long from now they’re likely to feel the steely grip of these automatons ’round their necks — fitting timing, perhaps, given the reports that the next Coldplay album could well be their last.
As such, Wilder Mind is simultaneously the worst and most honest Mumford & Sons outing. Even though the overwhelming majority of these 12 tunes are boring to the point that they could legitimately be classed as sleeping medication, the songwriting here is what has been underlying the Mumford & Sons project from the beginning. In the words of the band itself, sung on the Wilder Mind track “Ditmas”: “This is all I ever was / This all you came across those years ago… Don’t tell me I’ve changed / Because that’s not the truth.” As the Guardian‘s Alexis Petridis rightly identifies, the sonic of Wilder Mind is
normally a sound that speaks of vaulting commercial ambition: it’s the sound of the new artist with their eyes firmly fixed on the big prize, or of the indie band sick of the toilet circuit, packing away their quirks and cravenly going for the mainstream dollar. But Mumford & Sons are already commercially successful beyond most artists’ wildest dreams; this must be the music they genuinely want to make.
About a month before Wilder Mind‘s 4 May unveiling, I received a press release for a song by an unrelated group that was described as reminiscent of “the new electric Mumford & Sons”. That such a comparison was made prior to Wilder Mind‘s release is indicative of Mumford & Sons’ power as robots bent on global musical domination. More importantly, though, is the fact that the comparison is wrong: yes, that the music is primarily electric does make it “new” for Mumford & Sons, but the spirit of the music is identical. There are just less crescendos this time around. Although these guys beat the rise/fall technique like a dead horse on Sigh No More and Babel, it at least gave those LPs some degree of energy, however predictably it played out.
A couple of lines on the tune “Monster” further peel back the faux flesh that lines these cyborgs: “So fuck your dreams / Don’t you pick at our seams / I’ll turn into a monster for you / If you pay me enough.” It’s easy to miss the admission in these lyrics, because despite the song’s title, it lumbers along in a middling mid-tempo, which makes the attempt to spice things up with a harsh profanity flop like a fish in a barrel. If this is a “Monster”, then there hardly seems to be any cause for alarm.
But, then again, sometimes the scariest monsters sneak up on you. With each successive album, Mumford & Sons have picked at their own seams, resulting in the slog that is Wilder Mind, which reveals them for the well-dressed automatons that they are. Following a rigid set of programming, they’ve stripped away the artifice from their ostensible Americana aesthetic to reveal the boilerplate alt-rock that forms its core circuitry.
So yes, Mumford & Sons will turn into monsters if you pay them enough; from the look of it, they already have. Based off of the taupe take on rock ‘n’ roll that is Wilder Mind, you’ve got good cause to keep your change. If you don’t, you’re just letting the robots win.