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.
My issue with Mumford’s 2009 debut, Sigh No More, and Babel was the numbing one-note formula of the arrangements, which inevitably started at a low, quiet ebb and then built over the course of three and a half minutes to a raging crescendo of emotional catharsis. You always knew that if a banjo and catchy chorus was in the vicinity, Mumford and Sons would violently flog it. In small doses, this was incredibly effective. (No band in the past decade has performed as well on award shows.) Over the course of an album, however, it was wearying. The solution on Wilder Mind was to modify the dynamics, so that not every track was put automatically on a 45-degree angle. Electric instruments added some much-needed atmosphere and helped to make Wilder Mind feel more like a leisurely stroll than a serious of frantic sprints.
The other obvious change on Wilder Mind was more problematic: Mumford and Sons suddenly sounded a lot like The National. (The band even deployed Aaron Dessner as a producer and as a kind of spirit guide.) The search for a new sonic personality prompted Mumford & Sons to put on someone else’s clothes.
Which brings us to Delta, the album in which Mumford & Sons finally embraces being the mainstream pop group it always truly was. This starts right at the top with producer Paul Epworth, whose resume — Adele, Coldplay, Florence + The Machine, late-period U2 — also functions as a handy crib sheet of references that more or less sum up the aesthetic of Delta. Though it also underlines a familiar problem: If these guys aren’t bashing away on stringed instruments, who are they, exactly?
Delta has been billed as Mumford and Sons’ “wildly experimental” album, and it’s certainly experimental for Mumford and Sons. Many of the changes are boilerplate “let’s add electronic beats”-style adjustments that every aging arena-rock band engages in, from Pop era U2 to Reflektor era Arcade Fire. And then there are rambling epics like “The Wild,” which lards on bombastic string sections like a millennial redux of the Moody Blues, and the even more histrionic “Darkness Visible,” a self-described nod to “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a spoken-word interlude and prog-jazz flourishes.
While I was listening to Delta, I kept asking myself: Who is this for? A similar thought occurred to me when I first heard Wilder Mind. To be clear: I like the last two Mumford and Sons albums more than the first two. But I’m not actually a fan of this band. It makes me wonder whether Mumford and Sons have spent too much time paying attention to people who can’t stand them, at the expense of the millions of people who responded favorably to Sigh No More and Babel. Do those listeners really want prog-jazz epics? What was wrong with the banjo, anyway?
The best parts of Delta push Mumford and Sons a little less “wildly” away from what they’re known for. The first several minutes of opening track “42” place the band’s harmonies over a mournful church organ, a stirring acknowledgment of the spirituality that has long hovered in the background of Mumford & Sons’ music. That yearning quality also emanates from the single “Guiding Light,” which submerges the banjos in swaths of surging synths in a way that doesn’t feel overly forced. The title track is perhaps the most soaring song on the album, building from a swampy opening fanfare — how has Daniel Lanois not been introduced to these guys yet? — to the requisite (and undeniably satisfying) climax.
My favorite song on Delta, oddly enough, sounds like it could’ve appeared on either of the first two records. There’s little that’s wild or experimental about “Wild Heart,” an unadorned sad-bastard folk ballad in which Marcus Mumford earnestly pleads that “it takes a wild heart to tame mine.” Yes, it’s that kind of song. By the end, I was both rolling my eyes and wiping away a tear.
Best of all, it actually sounds like Mumford and Sons, rather than an attempt to placate detractors or keep pace with contemporary pop trends. I might not be a fan, but I always respect any band that knows who it is and isn’t ashamed of it. I hope Mumford & Sons can eventually get there. Shedding their self-consciousness would be their most radical experiment yet.
Delta is out 11/16 via Island Records. Get it here.