There’s a track on Mumford & Sons eclectic fourth record, ‘Delta’, that has three banjos layered on top of one another. It’s called ‘Woman’ and is, somewhat improbably, a foray into slinky R&B. There are some tracks on this album that contain up to seven banjos, but you’d never know, given that they’re obscured, recorded live and then sampled at super-producer Paul Epworth’s north London studio. Frontman Marcus Mumford recently told NME: “We sampled like Skrillex and chopped up beats like Kanye”. We’re a long way from ‘Little Lion Man’.
Mumford & Sons, having emerged from the London indie-folk scene in the late noughties, made their name with the sound perfected on that debut single: rinky-dink banjo, thunderous percussion, deeply earnest lyrics and a waistcoats-and-linen-shirts look that led Charlie Brooker to call them “trust fund wurzels”. After two albums, they reinvented themselves as leather jacket-clad arena rock stars with 2015’s coolly received, electric guitar-led ‘Wilder Mind’. Here they’ve split the difference, using the instruments of old to create something entirely new.
So ‘Woman’ and ‘Rose of Sharon’ (which features their protégé Maggie Rogers) are languid alternative R&B jams; the former beginning with Marcus purring ‘Woman’ with such raunchiness that we must assume his brief dalliance with rockism has left a lasting mark.
But that’s not the whole story: there are also straight-up acoustic ballads (the genuinely devastating ‘Beloved’, an ode to a loved one, on which Marcus croons, “Before you leave, you must know you are beloved”), lush orchestral arrangements that sometimes veer into Disney territory (recent single ‘If I say’), brooding spoken-word (‘Darkness Visible’) and even Bon Iver-style emotive autotune (the hushed coda on ‘October Skies’). Like we said: it’s eclectic.
There are standout moments – the aforementioned ‘Beloved’, the full-hearted chorus of lead single ‘Guiding Light’, the delicate tinkle of piano underpinned by a dog barking in the distance on ‘October Skies – but you must sift through these sprawling 14 tracks to find them.
Banjo player Winston Marshall told NME: “This isn’t our first album and we know it won’t be our last, so we feel freedom.” A decade after they began their bid to become the most popular band in the world, Mumford & Sons are still pushing into unfamiliar territory. Lyrically, the record deals with the onset of maturity and this, combined with that forward-thinking approach, suggests Mumford & Sons are here for the long haul. It’s a far from perfect album, but the band’s hunger for new sounds must be applauded.