Three years ago, the fire fueling the folk revival was at maximum combustion. Radio airwaves were awash in suspendered combos ravaging acoustic guitars and harmonizing around the old gin mill. It was the first rock movement to significantly crash the mainstream since Fred Durst stuck cookies up your yeah, and while plenty of like-minded groups scored hits, Mumford & Sons were the clear kings of the scene. So it’s mildly shocking that the British foursome’s third album, Wilder Mind, takes the sound that led them to multiplatinum success and chops it to bits. The band has swapped out its rail-riding sing-alongs for plugged-in epic rock that aims for the majestic swoop of U2 and poses a fascinating question: Should the Mumford men be lauded for exploring the world outside their artisanal-pickled comfort zone, or condemned for playing against their obvious strengths?
Their latest retains the structural dynamism of its predecessors (“Snake Eyes” builds and balloons as expertly as the top 10 smash “I Will Wait”), and though the overall volume is greater, the passion is lacking. Marcus Mumford tries hard to emote through the crashes of “Tompkins Square Park” and “Just Smoke,” but his full-throated bellow tends to fight songs instead of carry them. The obsessively buffed production doesn’t help—it scrubs gentle tunes like “Only Love” so clean they might as well be wrapped in plastic.
Wilder Mind is too well executed to truly dislike, but it also doesn’t provide many reasons to rally around Mumford & Sons’ brave new world. If they’re serious about this direction, they’ll need to diversify their sound. Maybe add a banjo? B
SNAKE EYES A slow-burning, twitchy shaker
THE WOLF A hard-charging fist-pumper