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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Album review: Wilder Minds by Mumford & Sons

After two albums of rootsy, banjo-plucking folk Marcus Mumford's merry men plug in - but the results are hardly Dylan at Newport.
Lead singer Marcus Mumford performs with Mumford & Sons at the Barclays Center in New York. Jason DeCrow / Invision / AP Photo
Lead singer Marcus Mumford performs with Mumford & Sons at the Barclays Center in New York. Jason DeCrow / Invision / AP Photo

Wilder Minds

Mumford & Sons

(Universal)

Three stars

The way that Wilder Mind, the third album from Mumford & Sons, has been described – a “startling change of direction”, “out with the old and in with the new” – you might not know what to expect.

You might be excited or, depending on your predispositions, overcome with anxiety at the idea of Marcus Mumford unleashing a mixtape of West Coast hip-hop, experimenting with Malian desert blues or – sadly, more likely – offering his vocal services to the next David Guetta single.

Relax. This is nothing that frightening. And nothing that interesting, either, because really, we’ve got more chance of Noel Gallagher recording an album of space jazz (which is, incidentally, how he described March’s Chasing Yesterday. It wasn’t).

Wilder Mind does mark a departure. This time there are – get this – electric guitars (this is “the new”, we presume). It is missing, thankfully, those plucking banjos (“the old”, then). But it is still Marcus Mumford singing sad things over sad tunes. The textures have just switched up a few decades – to somewhere around the 1980s.

Clocking combined sales of seven million, Sigh No More (2009) and Babel (2012) were equally twee sets of rootsy, acoustic throwback-folk, both of which were produced by Coldplay man Markus Dravs.

This time, the quartet have thrown caution to the wind and called in long-time Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine producer James Ford. So they’ve gone indie, then? Well, kind of. But this isn’t exactly Dylan plugging in at Newport.

Sonically, Wilder Mind’s moody, minimalist metronome drums, reverb-laden swoon, swelling e-bowed guitars and eerie synths can be filed neatly between Cincinnati’s The National and Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs. Plodding opener Tompkins Square Park and the standout title track, especially, wouldn’t sound out of place on the latter’s critic-seducer Lost in the Dream (which was named album of 2014 by at least 13 publications).

Wilder moments (sorry) include The Wolf and Ditmas – which has, like, drum rolls and guitar solos – tear a sheet from The Killers (Las Vegas-written) book of big-room rock clichés. Notice the trend? Like longing schoolboys, England’s finest have turned their gaze Stateside.

The weird thing is, there’s no need for this to be as contrived as it feels. Mumford were already packing stadiums in the US, and everywhere else for that matter. And they did it by thrilling weary indie fans with their banjo-plucking, tweed-heavy approach – it’s them we can blame for the early 2010s invasion of plaid-shirt-clad, fiddle-­packing troubadours (see The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, et al). And, like it or loathe it, they were good at it. And they did it first(ish).

But Wilder Mind positions Mumford & Sons as lost in the brewing US-centric landscape of literate indie/alt/Americana, turning their backs on the very thing that distinguished them in the first place.

After two nearly identical albums, progress of any kind is positive – it just would have been infinitely more engaging if Mumford and his merry men had chosen to evolve in a direction that made them more distinctive, rather than less.

rgarratt@thenational.ae