Let’s take a moment to remember just how huge Mumford &Sons once were. Back in 2013, amid a field that included Frank Ocean’s generation-defining Channel Orange, the British folk-rock quartet won the Grammy for Album of the Year for their sophomore album, 2012’s Babel. (Seriously — that was only five years ago, even though it feels like 20.) This wasn’t a matter of the Recording Academy only going for the safe white-bread choice over a cooler, more forward-thinking alternative — Mumford was a legit populist force riding high with two records that went triple-platinum in the US. In terms of genuine popularity, Mumford were more pop than anyone in their category.
By any metric, Mumford & Sons was the biggest band of the era, spawning a slew of guitar-slinging, suspenders-wearing imitators and an equally nasty backlash. And then… they stayed pretty big, actually. While Mumford & Sons’ third album, 2015’s Wilder Mind, was perceived as a commercial disappointment, a rock band going gold in the mid-’10s would be considered an incredible achievement by less lofty standards. (That album’s lead single, “Believe,” has been streamed more than 178 million times on Spotify. Again — not too shabby for a “failure.”)
There was no denying, however, that Mumford’s moment had passed, and that the band now had to figure out a way to navigate forward. But how? It’s the same question that also informs the band’s latest album, Delta: When what makes you unique comes to be viewed as a novelty, how do you change the perception that you’re a novelty act tied to a specific moment in time?
As a proud and vocal hater of Mumford & Sons during the band’s imperial period, I was surprised by how well Wilder Mind addressed this existential concern. No matter their old-timey accouterments, Mumford & Sons at heart have always been closer to Coldplay and Arcade Fire than Bob Dylan and The Band. Their specialty is hearty, full-throated anthems that inspire large crowds to sing-along with every “hey!” and “whoa!” They are, again, a pop band, not outsider iconoclasts. Wilder Mind was the first step toward acknowledging this.