Emily Jupp and Adam Sherwin review Mumford and Sons' new album Wilder Mind which has shocked fans by abandoning their distinctive acoustic sound.
Hit: Emily Jupp
In an interview with the New York magazine's culture site, Vulture last year, the Mumford's banjo player Winston Marshall was asked whether his band had "killed" the banjo. His response: "I think 'killed' is an understatement. We murdered it. We let it, yeah – f*** the banjo. I fucking hate the banjo." But it was difficult to know how much weight we should give to that comment at the time given that in the same interview Marshall also claimed the band was over and that he'd given up music and moved on to a career in mass catering.
Judging by new single, "Believe", and an intimate gig at London's Oslo club on Monday night, where they played new album, Wilder Mind, the rumours (about the banjos, not the McCareers) are true: the Mumfords have parted ways with the jingly-jangly instrument that propelled them to fame. If not quite the beating heart, it was the twanging soul behind the group's first two albums, Sigh No More and Babel but, like any good band, they've moved on and their sound has evolved and they've swapped the banjo chords for electric guitars.
The influence of producer James Ford, who has worked with Arctic Monkeys and Haim has helped to produce a more robust sound (they've finally ditched that flim-flammy kick-drum). Not all their fans are happy about it but "Believe" is a sophisticated, textured single, evocative of the floatier numbers by indie-rock group Warpaint, or the shimmering synths favoured by Coldplay, plus Marshall's electric guitar sounds stadium-ready.
Lyrically, too, the tune sounds all grown up. Compare the cryptic mournful chanting of "But man is a giddy thing/ Oh man is a giddy thing" on "Sigh No More" to the love story that smoothly unfolds on "Believe" of a partner who's not telling the full story. The catchy chorus urges, "I don't even know if I believe anything you're trying to say to me/ this is never gonna go our way if I have to guess what's on your mind." Simple, forthright, a sentiment that speaks to everyone.
Synthetic sounds can sometimes create a flatness to a tune, but the Mumfords have managed to use them to create a sense of power and energy that's hard to resist. The banjo is dead, long live electric.
Miss: Adam Sherwin
When Bob Dylan went "electric" in 1965, the howls of anguish this about-turn prompted from his hardcore folkie audience was a response to the ear-splitting, abrasive modernism of this bold new direction.
Mumford & Sons, though, appear to have moved in precisely the opposite direction. Famed for their rambunctious, banjo-led hoedowns, the best Mumford songs lend themselves to full-throated hollerings in a large field. "Believe", however, is politely ushered in on a bed of the sort of twinkling synths Brian Eno might leave on overnight in his studio as ambient background noise. Then Marcus Mumford's tremulous vocal kicks in and it's impossible to shake the Chris Martin comparison.
As the band's leather-jacketed image suggests, Mumford are moving into full-on stadium rock-at-its-politest mode to match their multimillion-selling, Grammy-winning status.
"Believe" is an arena-filler, written precisely to the Coldplay template. The only surprise is that it takes as long as two minutes for the pounding drums and Jonny Buckland-style piercing guitar line to arrive, indicating we are reaching the phones-aloft big chorus moment.
Gentle acoustic strums pad out the song's driving momentum but Mumford have thoroughly burnt their banjos. The entirely generic comeback song is hardly elevated by non-specific lyrical appeals to "open up my eyes" and "tell me I'm alive." With its glossy sheen designed for global mainstream radio play, "Believe" could sit comfortably on the new Take That album and will be performed by X Factor contestants for years to come.
Legions of alt-folk copyists have jumped on the Mumford bandwagon since their 2010 breakthrough so it's understandable that the band want to strike out for pastures new.
The band describe the change of direction on their new, possibly misleadingly titled Wilder Mind album, as "liberating". Yet where a band like Radiohead sought musical liberation in the pursuit of boundary-free, sonic experimentation, Mumford & Sons have broken out of their hayseed straitjacket only to imprison themselves within the confines of a more cautious, conservative sound than the raucous acoustic stomps that made them an international sensation.