On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan, already an acclaimed acoustic folk singer/songwriter and voice of a generation, shocked audiences by “plugging in” at the Newport Folk Festival. Dylan ditched his usual Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and was backed by an all-electric band, leading to boos from members of the crowd who believed he was also forgoing the authenticity of his acoustic style in the process. Nonetheless, Bob Dylan’s success and popularity grew still and many even consider Dylan’s electric song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” his greatest.
While maybe not as dramatic as Dylan’s, Mumford & Son’s transition from the “Arena Folk” of Sigh No More and Babel to the “Alternative/Indie Rock” for their most recent and third overall album, Wilder Mind, is arguably the closest modern parallel of the infamous “Electric Dylan” controversy.
The best musical artists are the ones who are able to adapt and evolve. Though Mumford & Sons have garnered massive following and popular appeal, music critics haven’t been as swooned. While Sigh No More is considered a fantastic album, Babel, was practically the B-Sides of Sigh No More (it did actually win AOTY, but the Grammys are often criticized for awarding the most commercially successful acts instead of focusing solely on content, but that’s a rant for another day). The sound hadn’t evolved, the lyrics hadn’t evolved (fun fact: every song on Sigh No More and Babel contains the words “hand” or “heart”) and it seemed as though the band’s repertoire could be reduced to a single gif:
So the music world was shocked as Mumford, debatably the biggest band in the world, decided to ditch their banjos and suspenders for electric guitars and leather jackets. They also hired Aaron Dessner, guitarist for the indie-rock band, The National, to produce the record.
The album starts off incredibly strong, and the first three tracks are arguably the three of best on the LP. The opening track, “Tompkins Square Park,” could fit in easily on one of The National’s latest releases, not only from an instrumental standpoint filled, but also in its lyrical content, centered on a relationship of lies and deceitfulness. The droning synthesizers at the song’s conclusion roll over into “Believe,” the album’s first single, which includes a tasteful Radiohead-esque guitar solo by Winston Marshall, who mainly kept to banjo on the band’s prior releases.
“The Wolf” is the closest Mumford & Sons get on Wilder Mind to consolidating their newfound love for electricity and their knack for power anthems, present on past songs such as “I Will Wait” off of Babel. Easily the biggest banger on the record, the song structure follows that of the quintessential Mumford song. Following an instrumental, Marcus Mumford opens on quiet vocals with him on guitar, the band joins in slowly as the song picks up power and Mumford starts to nearly scream out and then the band cuts out for a measure, only to jump in for a bangin’ instrumental. Except for the electric riff playing instead of the notorious banjo, the song has the classic “Mumford & Sons” appeal.
After the track, “Wilder Mind,” another The National-esque sounding tune, the album dips in quality. The songs seem more generic and formulaic, with very little of the punch present in the first third of the album. “Broad-Shouldered Beasts” sounds like a track that didn’t make the cut for Babel, so in order to fit in more on Wilder Mind, it’s like Mumford decided to just strum it on electric guitar. “Snake Eyes” is the lone exception on the back end of the album, providing more the hints of the talented electric rock Mumford & Sons are capable of.
In the end, Wilder Mind is still a quality rock album. Any artist making such a massive musical shift is bound to have hiccups in the process and Mumford makes a few. While Mumford & Sons may still not feel as comfortable in their leather jackets as they do with their banjos, tracks like “The Wolf” show promise that Mumford can produce well-made and catchy music. More importantly their ambitious evolution as artists, from folk to alternative-rock, cannot be underrated.
Songs to remember: “Tompkins Square Park,” “The Wolf,” “Snake Eyes”
Songs to forget: “Broad-Shouldered Beasts,” “Cold Arms,” “Only Love”
Image Credit to Mumford & Sons