Spare a thought for Mumford & Sons. Yes, they’ve sold millions of records. And yes, they’ve been deemed credible enough to play with artists such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. But whatever they do, it seems this folk-rock four-piece will forever be a lightning rod for critical vitriol.
That they are inauthentic was the original source of irritation when these public schoolboys from London emerged almost a decade ago, all tweed waistcoats, neckerchiefs and hoedowns. “They look like f***ing Amish people,” Liam Gallagher famously said. Yet the band were dismissed, too, when they finally dropped the faux-rusticana and swapped the banjo-driven bonhomie for pastoral American rock on their 2015 album, Wilder Mind. This drift towards a War on Drugs-like sound, the critics argued, was hardly the big gamble Mumford & Sons claimed, given how massive their following is in the US.
For Delta, their fourth album, the band have thrown every musical idea they possess into the mix: some orchestral flourishes here, some dabs of jazz and electronica there, with the acoustic instruments that dominated Sigh No More and Babel here drenched in digital effects by producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay). Texturally, Delta thrums with weird stuff, weaving in keyboard filigrees between the soaring riffs. Where Wilder Mind purported to be ambitious, this record genuinely is. The soundscapes are cinematic – and intense.
While the album’s lead single, “Guiding Light”, will satisfy the fans weaned on the band’s barbershop harmonies and bombastic choruses, “Rose of Sharon” finds Mumford & Sons swimming blissfully into warm, uncharted waters – just listen to its West African inflections and subtle vocals from Brooklyn songwriter Maggie Rogers. Catchy, too, is the sparse, electronic-flecked ballad “Woman”, which roots itself deeply in your ear despite Mumford’s warble recalling Alt-J frontman Joe Newman’s mewled delivery.
Still, for all their experimentation on Delta, Mumford & Sons remain painfully earnest. Keep a straight face as a dramatic reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost takes place over the portentous psychedelia of “Darkness Visible”. Or as Marcus Mumford sings “you’ll find me on my knees for you” amid the banal crescendos of “Slip Away”, a track that would definitely have been used on The OC to accompany Mischa Barton looking sad. Lyrically, the band aren’t that dissimilar to the Instagram influencer you follow who has “carpe diem” tattooed on their wrist.
According to keyboardist Ben Lovett, the album was inspired by death, divorce and depression. To use another “D”, it’s all very dramatic, both thematically and sonically, with virtually every track following the same pattern: quiet, bit louder, LOUD. Take “The Wild” – all wistful calm before the (symphonic) storm, as synths, military drums, banjos, cellos, flutes, violins and, er, the kitchen sink are swept up in something less than the sum of its parts. Far more rousing is the album closer “Delta”, which blends snatches of Mumford’s children giggling with a staccato synthesiser motif and somehow manages not to sound that sentimental.
In truth, though, Delta is good but not great. “We’re strangely confident about this album,” said Mumford in a recent interview. “Perhaps that is because it feels the most like ourselves.” Exactly.
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