Mumford & Sons rocketed from obscurity to fame pretty quickly. Their first two singles engaged an international rock audience and permeated the mainstream before a lot of fans even realized who they were. The band’s songs quickly turned up in all manner of TV and film placements and radio formats of all stripes found room for them. Mumford & Sons kicked off a “folk rock” revival, throwing open the doors of rock radio for acts embracing acoustic guitars, ukuleles and banjos instead of their plugged-in cousins. And then they took a sharp turn and did the opposite of that. With a new album on the shelves, it’s a good time for a look back at Mumford & Sons’s studio discography.
Sigh No More (2009)
Mumford & Sons got the “folkie” tag with their debut album Sigh No More. It was a nice trick on the band’s part, because while the bulk of the album highlighted acoustic instruments, the songs themselves mostly fell into classic rock song structures. But by going with a lo fi approach, Mumford & Sons stood out from a lot of what was on rock radio by the time they hit the scene. The performances were steeped in rock tradition, in terms of energy, time signature, dynamics contrasts between choruses and verses, and tempo. Indeed, the band attacked acoustic guitars, piano and upright bass the way other combos approached their electric cousins. It was all in service to tuneful, energetic performances of some pretty decent songs. That’s certainly apparent on Sigh’s radio hits, “Little Lion Man,” “The Cave” and “Roll Away Your Stone.” Without some of the production distractions common to alternative rock, listeners could focus on the songs’ strong melodies and the pristine harmonies supporting Marcus Mumford’s pleasantly gruff lead vocals. The approach was smart and made Mumford & Sons stars. Not that the “folk” label was entirely off-base. A couple of songs (the title cut, “Awake My Soul” and “After the Storm”) felt grounded in the folk idiom and made good use of the band’s approach. Electric guitars weren’t entirely absent, either, popping up most notably on “Dust Bowl Dance.” It all added up to a tuneful, engaging collection whose success was no surprise in retrospect.
Babel solidified Mumford & Sons as big stars, going multi-platinum and picking up a Grammy for Album of the Year. The band didn’t really change up its approach from its well-received debut and it worked for them. Singles “I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light” and the title track all scored at Alternative Rock and Adult Pop formats with a driving rock approach played on mostly acoustic instruments with the band’s spot-on harmonies and facility for dynamic contrasts. Mumford & Sons had more competition in that space than they’d faced with their debut, but managed to stand out with strong songs. They showed off variety with some nice ballads, especially “Ghosts That We Knew” and a nice bonus cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Boxer.” Electric instruments still creeped up around the edges, most notably on “Hopeless Wanderer” and a couple of other songs managed to feint at the folk sounds the band had been tagged for producing. In the end it was another solid, tasteful album of adult-oriented alt rock and pop with a lot of energy and style. If there wasn’t anything especially surprising on Babel it’s still worth hearing.
Wilder Mind (2015)
From the way some commentators reacted, one would think that Mumford & Sons primarily using electric instruments on their third album was the second coming of “Dylan plugs in.” Wilder Mind certainly has somewhat of a different feel from its predecessors. But in many ways, it’s a logical continuation of what Mumford & Sons have always done. Previously, the band wrote rock songs that they played with a lot of force and tempo, albeit using mostly acoustic instruments, with the electrics popping up around the edges of a few songs. Wilder Mind inverts that approach. The band’s writing is the same as it’s always been, but now they’re primarily using electrics. That gives the songs a bit more of an effortless feel. You don’t feel like the boys are about to play themselves into a heart attack to get the same kind of energy out of acoustic instruments. But these still sound like “Mumford & Sons songs.” Lead single “Believe” is a perfect example. It’s built mostly on electric guitar and drums, but works the same kind of energy and dynamic shifts that have been the bedrock of previous hits for the band. Acoustic instruments still factor into many songs (especially the prominent piano line on “Cold Arms”), but are less prominent in the mix when they turn up. And the band’s approach to electric guitars doesn’t amount to a non-stop shred-fest. Several quieter cuts quite effectively used a strummed electric line to strong effect, proving that “electric” doesn’t have to equate to “loud.” The volume is somewhat amped up, of course, and the electric approach bestows a sheen of momentum to goose some of the sleepier cuts. But if you’ve liked Mumford & Sons in the past, Wilder Mind bears a recognizable throughline that makes it worth checking out.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on May 20, 2015.