Much has already been made of Mumford & Sons’ abandonment of their beloved banjos for album number three. Yet anyone who’s seen the quartet live – which, when you consider their knackering touring schedule and commitment to playing far flung fields as well as arenas, is a great many people – will attest that there have always been hints of a rockier side lurking beneath the folksy facade.
With the assistance of Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs on 2009’s ‘Sigh No More’ and 2012’s ‘Babel’, Mumford & Sons rapidly became one of the biggest bands in the world. The abrupt switch of producer for ‘Wilder Mind’ then, only seems a risk until you find out exactly who they’ve roped in to help out. Initial sessions were helmed by Aaron Dessner, from gods of gloom The National, and the album itself was overseen by Haim, Florence And The Machine and Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford. Interestingly, Florence regularly works with Ford, but is using Dravs as producer for her upcoming album ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, like some high stakes game of chart-topping chess.
The influence of Dessner’s band is clear from the get-go, not just in the New York-centric title of opening track ‘Tompkins Square Park’ – which references a small East Village patch of green favoured by Hare Krishna monks and hipster dog walkers – but its driving bursts of melancholy. Before Marcus Mumford’s tobacco-glazed vocal sparks into life, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a particularly rousing offcut from The National’s 2010 album ‘High Violet’, complete with a propulsive chorus that nudges itself into The War On Drugs’ school of heartland rock. ‘Believe’ follows, with twanging guitars and stadium-reaching riffs. It’s far from typical of the record though, something which will come as good news to those upset at the group’s presumed Coldplay-ification. Second single ‘The Wolf’ is far more substantial, a thrusting and unforgiving three-and-a-half minutes that flaunt the band’s continued fondness for ye olde turns of phrase (“Leave behind your wanton ways”, compels Marcus, like a winsome medieval gent plonked down in the middle of Manhattan’s Avenue A.)
The record’s unmitigated massive moment is the unrelenting ‘Ditmas’, named for Ditmas Park, the Brooklyn district the bulk of The National call home. A desperate purging of love and loss, its four-to-the-floor beat is Mumford & Sons at their most enthralling; a band not just refusing to be pigeonholed in the waistcoats and acoustic hoe-downs of the past, but propelling themselves into the future by way of vast licks, emotive lyricism and one hell of a catchy melody. The major key revelry of ‘Just Smoke’ and tumbling fury of ‘Snake Eyes’ plug into a similarly widescreen vision, the band’s sound boosted immensely by the introduction of an actual drum kit, as opposed to the lonesome kick-drum Marcus has been booting about for the past six years.
Yet softer moments remain: the earthy harmonies of ‘Hot Gates’ offer hushed reverence, and the delicate ‘Cold Arms’ lets a lone electric guitar ring out as Marcus sings of lovers betrayed and left “all torn up”. ‘Only Love’ is the perfect synthesis of the two distinct elements of this album, and in turn its makers, a whispered build-up bursting into a gigantic beast, brimming with passion and 1970s Fleetwood Mac guitars.
Still missing the banjos? Didn’t think so.