Monday, May 11, 2015

Where My Banjos At? (A Review of "Wilder Mind")

I recall the exact moment that I started listening to Mumford and Sons. I was at a friend's house who is -- by all definitions -- a complete and total hipster. It was our mutual friend's birthday, and he and his wife had brought cupcakes that she made (adorably shaped like billiard balls). While we were eating, my friend scoured through his music collection and pulled out a record, an actual vinyl record (I told you he was a hipster) to put on his record player. It was Mumford and Sons' "Little Lion Man." As I listened to the lyrics and listened to the music, I became enraptured by everything. I love music and I listen to a lot of it -- boy bands, rock bands, alternative singers, Broadway musicals, top 40 hits, country, etc. -- and I hadn't ever really heard of anything quite like Mumford. They were folksy, but poignant. They were spiritual, but not Christian. They were deep and soulful without really trying too hard to be.

The reason that I fell in love with this band and the reason why I am so enamored by Babel is because Mumford and Sons filled a void in my musical repertoire that I didn't even know was missing. Their songs made me think. Their music made me dance and sway. Their lyrics were poetic. And that's what music is, really, at its core: music is poetry and prose. I'm not a songwriter but I can understand that, as a storyteller. Country music is prose -- country music tells stories constantly. Stories about families. Stories about silly things like tractors and parties and summertime. Stories about love and stories about being cheated on. Stories about drinking and laughing. Good country music is a narrative.

But folk music is poetry. Folk music contains images and allusions. It fills your soul, not just your heart, with words and memories and feelings. And yes, sometimes it tells the story of a man and a woman. Sometimes it tells the story of a lonely, wandering soul. But more often than not, folk music is the music that you use to evoke images and emotions, not to string together a cohesive narrative. A lot of music is prose but a lot of it -- the really, really good kind -- is poetry. Sigh No More and Babel are Mumford and Sons at their core: albums full of spiritual imagery, snapshots of redemption and grace, of love and loss. And now, with Mumford's recently released new album Wilder Mind, I thought I would take the time to discuss the band's musicality and lyricism on their newest -- and very different -- album.

I like Wilder Mind, I really do. I like it in the way that a lot of people like (and I do, too) Taylor Swift's 1989. The most recent albums from both artists are departures from the music they typically create -- Mumford's is a more melancholy, banjo-less album and Swift's was a solely pop one -- but are exceptional nonetheless. When you've listened to enough Mumford and Sons, you come to expect a few things from their tracks. At the top of that list? Banjos. But on Wilder Mind, you'll hear banjos replaced with electric guitars and drums. Do I miss the banjos, the twang and bounce and folksy feel of the songs? Of course. Do I think that the tracks on this new album are somehow less impressive or less "Mumford" because of this? No, not particularly.

Because you see, the core, to me, of any Mumford and Sons song is the lyricism. I'm constantly impressed by the imagery that the band evokes. Constantly pleased by how universal and yet unique each song feels. I love listening to slow ballads or upbeat anthems but I love listening to the messages in these songs even more. And while yes, I do lament the lack of the folksy feel of Mumford's most recent album, I also think there's a lot more to glean from it than bemoaning what was lost in the replacement of instruments. And I think it was a conscious decision, too, not necessarily so that Mumford could streamline itself into a more "top 40" or pop feel, but because banjos and solemn messages do not really mix well together.

In spite of some amazing drums and electric guitars, a lot of Wilder Mind feels very somber and though there is hope and love and energy peppered throughout, as is customary for the band, the album, collectively, feels more solemnly introspective than any of the previous albums have been. And, again, it's not bad by any means. I love a lot of the tracks on this album. There's "Just Smoke," which is such a fantastic song with a hopeful energy to it (clapping in the background during the chorus really emphasizes that), even if the subject of the song itself is focused on a past relationship that has ended ("I thought we were done and young love would keep us young"). This song is easily contrasted with the more mellow, slow "Only Love" which boasts the lyrics: "Didn't they say that only love will win in the end?"

There are still whispers of hope throughout Wilder Mind, but they float among more quiet, introspective, solemn territory than they have before. And honestly, music should reflect lyrics. A somber song about lost love would not work with banjos or foot-stomping rhythms. Melody needs to match tone and this album's tone is slower, just as profound and deep, but wrapped in a bit sadder subject matter. I lament the lost banjos, I truly do, but I also don't believe they would fit -- tonally -- with everything else in the new Mumford and Sons' album. Is this a change in sound for them, permanently? Will the banjos return on the next studio album? I believe that Mumford knows exactly who they are and what they want to make. They, as a band, seek to express themselves through music. Isn't that what all artists do? So each album they create, musically, is reflective of the source material.

You can tell that the traditional Mumford rawness and honesty is still prevalent throughout this album, even if the banjos are replaced with guitars and drums. Listen to "The Wolf." Listen, in particular, to "Believe." Or "Ditmas." What I've always admired about Mumford and Sons is that they're a band whose lyrics and music are honest and true and both perfectly compliment one another. Wilder Mind has some fantastic imagery (a lot of animal imagery with the aforementioned "The Wolf" and also "Snake Eyes" and "Monster") and a lot of poetic language about darkness, stillness, and isolation (empty beds, empty relationships, etc.)

Wilder Mind is also an album that focuses a lot more on the temporary and tangible than the ethereal. There are many more songs about lovers and relationships -- "Cold Arms" is a prime example -- than previously sung about on Sigh No More and Babel. And while there is some hope interjected into the sadness and some encouragement and love gleaned from the loss of the relationships sung about, Wilder Mind often feels like it's stuck in the "in-between": a realm filled with potential but brimming with sadness.

All of this, of course, is not to say that I disliked Mumford and Sons' new album. I actually quite enjoyed my first listen through and the ones after that. I maintain that this band has some of the most thought-provoking lyrics and images and some of the most spiritual wisdom without being preachy. They're a band who has already produced amazing things and though they're known for their upbeat, energetic, hop-around-in-your-spot banjo-filled music. And perhaps, in the future, they will pick up those banjos once more. But for now, Wilder Mind remains one of Mumford and Sons' most somber but also powerful, honest, and moving endeavors in music and lyricism. At the end of the day, that's really all you can ask for when it comes to music, isn't it?


  1. Thank you for reviewing this album! You've expressed it all beautifully. :) I'm also a Mumford fan, and have really enjoyed this latest album. It's quite rare these days for a band to be able to craft sucessive albums at the same high quality (I think!) - and especially to depart from their 'sound' a little yet still be recognisable and hold true to their essence.

    What really struck me about Babel (to rewind a little!) was all the religious and corporeal imagery running through the album. Sometimes overt, sometimes not. I found it very interesting, really:

    "Babel", "devil", "sin", "cup tastes holy", "forgive", "Lord forget all my sins", "shake ash to the wind", "broken crown", "tempt", "consign me not to darkness", "grace", "will not speak of your sin; way out for Him", "told by Jesus", "tongue of old, "spit out some holy word", "leader of the flock", "a rock for those below"... I mean, it goes on!

    And then you add that to the sheer abject physicality of some of the other lyrics: "raise hands", "kneel down", "on my knees", "eyes to serve, hands to learn", etc. For me, it was a very painful album. Raw, even. Again: "lash", "blood" or "bleeding", "cuts", "bones", "sweat", a lot of mentions of "flesh"...

    I don't quite know what to make of all that (requires further in-depth analysis, heh), but it all comes together to create something almost violent. Yet cathartic by the very same token... I think that's one of the reasons I like this band so much: there's an underlying darkness there (well, to me, anyway) yet something in me responds...

    (I'm sure all this has already been said - and much better - before!!)

    Well, anyway. Although I haven't listened to it *all* that much yet, I also noticed the references to animals/beasts/monsters in Wilder Mind! There's certainly still a lot of painful imagery (and indeed the religious element again e.g. "absolution", albeit far less so) but I also think there's a lot of softer imagery to balance it. Er, let's see... "divine", "precious", "tender", "waves", "slip", "blessed", etc. I mean, I know some of it is ironic and some of it is to put the more dramatic stuff into relief, but just the very presence of those words alters the tone.

    I'm going to shut up now! I've sort of lost track of what I wanted to say. ;)

    Anyway, thanks again!

    And... I hope to read your next review of Community soon (you may remember me, the newbie, from a couple of weeks back. ;) I meant to thank you and the other commenters for your kind welcome, but I never got round to it...For which I apologise!)

    Best wishes,


  2. There are still whispers of hope throughout wilder mind, but they float among more quiet, introspective, solemn territory than they have before and this making is great.

  3. Some sort of somber song about lost love won't work with banjos or foot-stomping rhythms. Melody needs to match tone and this also album's tone is slower, just seeing that profound and deep, but wrapped within a bit sadder subject matter.

  4. Their particular lyrics were poetic. And which is what music is, really, with its core: music is beautifully constructed wording and prose. I'm not a songwriter but I could understand that, as a storyteller. Region music is prose -- region music tells stories constantly.

  5. Thanks for an even handed review. It'll undoubtedly create lots of hate... the comparisons you make with this record all sound favorable, but will be used as sticks to beat both you and those poor Mumford lads with