When Mumford & Sons made their debut in 2009, the band’s propulsive, earnest folk and banjos-and-suspenders aesthetic set them apart from their modern-rock peers. Rather than writing anthemic post-punk in the vein of the Strokes or Coldplay, Mumford & Sons offered something raw, acoustic, and a little bit hokey. When the wispy opening strums of “Little Lion Man” flourished into those uplifting banjo arpeggios, it seemed like a rootsy take on the Pixies oft-replicated loud-quiet-loud formula that, while not necessarily innovative, was at least identifiably Mumford & Sons’ own.
Much has been made about Wilder Mind being Mumford and Sons’ first foray into “going electric,” and from opener “Tompkins Square Park,” it becomes evident what that means: anthemic post-punk in the vein of the Strokes or Coldplay. Whether it’s the icy pads that open up the vague and sterile “Believe” (“I don’t even know if I believe,” Marcus Mumford listlessly sings during the chorus) or the Edge-style delay effects used on “Just Smoke,” the album is a thoroughly competent recreation of what Mumford & Sons think an adult-oriented indie-rock album should sound like.
Many of the songs on Wilder Mind were demoed at the National guitarist Aaron Dessner’s studio, and, at its best, the album captures the measured, regal atmospheres of that band’s best work. “Snake Eyes” escalates from a plaintive guitar figure and Mumford’s crooning whisper to a rafter-rattling rocker with the help of a well-placed drum crescendo and some deceptively simple keyboard ostinatos, while the gorgeous bridge of “Broad-Shouldered Beast” is bolstered by a string section that’s somehow both foreboding and romantically grandiose. This ends up being, by far, the most complex emotion expressed on the album.
Mumford & Sons’ great gift remains their ability to raise the stakes just in time to lend power and momentum to an emotionally resonant final hook. As Mumford sings of “words empty as the bed we made” on “Ditmas,” a gorgeous guitar drone introduces the album’s most vital, intense vocal performance. Unfortunately, moments like these often seems perfunctory and punched in; rarely do they feel earned and sometimes, like on “Only Love,” the propulsive motion (in this case, a hurricane of crunchy guitar downstrokes) supersedes the limp chorus that it’s supposed to be building toward.
Wilder Mind’s compositional predictability may have been easier to swallow if Mumford didn’t attach it to such tired lyrical sentiments. Though “Tompkins Square Park” ought to be imbued with an implicit specificity (a very particular place evoking very particular emotions for very particular reasons), it instead stacks clichés in unexciting ways: “But no flame burns forever/You and I both know this song too well.” Oh but we do, Marcus.
This isn’t to say Wilder Mind is a failure. Brief flashes of newfound power (the snare-propelled swagger of “The Wolf”) and sophistication (the lilting pull-off riff that opens “Just Smoke”) hint at a potentially fruitful plugged-in future for Mumford & Sons, but as long as the band mines the well-tread sonic ground of their contemporaries without adding any sort of personal stamp, be it instrumental or lyrical, then they’re just going to top out as pleasantly forgettable. Whatever one felt about the banjos and suspenders, that version of Mumford & Sons at least conjured an opinion. Wilder Mind may be something altogether worse than divisive: unremarkable.