Column, Music, Arts

Mumford & Sons Ditches The Banjo, Rolls Over A New Stone

Change is a good thing. Comfort, routine, the same thoughts with each passing year: all of it, it’s overrated. Take this lesson from a popular, and growing ever more popular British folk rock band: risk is the only way up. I mean, well, the banjo never really did it for me, anyway, so a big thanks to Marcus Mumford and his misleadingly titled gang of Sons for shaking it up and ditching the instrument altogether for their new album, Wilder Mind. It’s not that I hated the banjo. It’s just that the best part of the band’s songs were the raw, emotional quality behind Marcus’ voice, the complex, fearless lyrics, and the burning crescendo that many of the tracks built themselves up to—not the one instrument that everyone immediately associates them with. Mostly, I liked how the band risked a lot, a lot of the time—not every popular band would green light saying “f—ked” in several of the main choruses, for one thing.

Mumford & Sons—finally back together after more than a year spent officially on hiatus, a hiatus I had accepted as a finality—is experiencing a tense intermediary period. Their first single, “Believe,” from their new album has lit up the Top 40 list, but the album in its entirety doesn’t come out until May 4. The new single is good. Very catchy. A noticeable Killers and Coldplay feel to it. Its off-putting listening to it the first time through. And, even though the complex lyrics are missing (it’s hard not to get the point the first time around), the raw emotion is ever present, and the track has a building, electric, hair-raising beat.

But it’s easily distinguishable in its parts and simple in its execution. There’s some variation of what’s heard in “Believe” with all electric guitar riffs and beats that have been heard before. For a band so unafraid to nudge at the line, they’ve played it relatively safe with their first outing. There is hope, on my part at least, that they really take advantage of the electric presence—and expansion from simple foot pedal drumming and acoustic strumming—to experiment. Talent this good shouldn’t get comfortable. One song like this is good, but 12 times over is bad, and if all 12 songs play their hands modestly then they will all suffer death by radio—which “Believe” surely is at the moment (a claim that is, admittedly, unsubstantiated because I’m no where close to a radio) and there are few fates worse than that.

And this is all coming from the guy that really didn’t like Mumford & Sons the first time he heard it. The sound was rough on my ears, the rhythm and purpose displeasing. It was sometime into my junior year of high school when a friend snatched the Aux. cord from the center console and said, “You have got to hear this.” I wasn’t sold then, either. I learned that Mumford & Sons is an acquired taste. At some point, over the years, between that moment in the car, and now, they grew on me. This time, littered with sprints through dark Brooklyn streets after the seeing them live, long summer drives with the Sons roaring through the speakers until our ears went numb, and sitting on a roof in a more rural part of Long Island, looking at a night sky and arguing whether Sigh No More was better than Babel, deeply impressed itself on  me. After all of this, I was sold on Marcus Mumford and the group of ragtag looking musicians, and their incredibly unique sound.

My point? I have invested emotional interest in this, too, and even with all of it, I can say that I’m glad they’re not going for Babel 2 (as Ted Dwane made light of in Rolling Stone). While more of the same can never hurt, progress is preferred to stagnation. And, even if the whole thing bombs, and Wilder Mind is a failed experiment, the tired, used-up quote does carry significant weight here: it’s the thought that counts.

People who never gave the band the time of day will grab the back baseboard of this new-mainstream-Mumford-bandwagon, holding on with everything they’ve got, and so what? Let ’em jump in on the fun. Here’s to hoping that “Believe” represents the beginning, not the apex of the new sound. Here’s to hoping they stay together and don’t crush my dreams again by pretending to go their separate ways for another year and half. And, here’s to the banjo—you had a good run, buddy, but now it’s time to let someone else get a chance to play.

Featured Image Courtesy of Island Records

March 26, 2015