What makes an album essential? What makes it awful? What makes it merely okay—in a good sense or bad? Some music critics can talk themselves into a nervous breakdown trying to answer these questions. Some bands, confidence caught in the creative crossfire, can do exactly the same.
Confronted with changing public tastes and a wave of watered-down soundalikes, Mumford and Sons has avoided this trap. But in doing so, the band has done the unthinkable. Unfortunately, the more you think about it, worse this news becomes.
With “Wilder Mind,” Mumford and Sons have scrapped their old sound; but bands have scrapped their old sound before. The new sound they’ve embraced (in the care of that dude from The National) is moderately moody, moderately heavy, moderately portentous, and moderately pop. But bands have done that before, too. In a plain and calculated way, Mumford has turned in a record that’s more mainstream, but less significant, than their earlier work—following, again, in a not-so-proud tradition.
Driving Listeners to a Wilder Mind
So, what’s the problem?
Simple: they have done all these things without any evidence of panic, depression, confusion, or catharsis—in short, without any of the telltale signs of being actual artists or even actual humans. And it shows. “Wilder Mind” is one of the most unintentionally devastating journeys that a thoughtful music lover can make this year.
Jorge Luis Borges coined the term zahir to describe an accursedly banal and random object that drives the viewer to obsessed distraction. Because no other explanation seems wholly adequate, it can’t be ruled out that “Wilder Mind” is Mumford and Sons’ attempt to create a zahir. Its title bears no rational relation to its musical content, which marries The Killers’ late-career dirges to The War on Drugs’ unchanging, clicky percussion. Lushly produced but ultimately featureless, Kings of Leon for people who don’t remember Kings of Leon, the title “Wilder Mind” hints obscenely at the ordeal in store for the listener.
To wit: you will be left in the wake of an unclassifiable cipher to guess, in vain, whether it is too bro or too hipster, too stale or on trend, a vision of our musical future or the vision of a Nothing that is eating the future of music—blurring away the distinction between good and bad until our paralyzed souls simply permit music to happen, whatever it is or isn’t, whoever is or is not responsible for bringing it into the world.
Shedding Mumford’s Identity—For What?
As inert and pitiless as the Sphinx, “Wilder Mind” JUST IS. It’s still there, in my head, although I can only piece together memories and clues from the shaky notes I scrawled on a Post-It pad.
It’s not that Mumford has given us something stunningly adult contemporary. It’s that nothing seems to be truly at stake, as it is with Don Henley, Michael McDonald, or even Hall and Oates. It’s not that Mumford has shed its character, spontaneity, and texture in favor of the smooth, slick sounds of the monoculture. It’s that they’ve forgotten that Miley, Taylor, and Haim can get away with this move by piling on instantaneously catchy hooks and melodies.
It’s not even that they’ve given in to Manchild Syndrome, brooding away on the relationship problems of bearded boys who can’t stay young but can’t grow up. Bands like Airborne Toxic Event and Twin Shadow have managed to do something fresh with similar themes—but, oh right, they’ve done so by doubling down on electronic music or theatrical production. Mumford won’t even do that. Their instrumentation has shed its identity.
The effect is that you, too, begin to lose your identity. Do you like this music? Do you hate it? Can you care? Imagine if Coldplay were somehow better and worse at the same time. What can you do with this information? Were you better off never having hear this at all? No matter how deep and menacing the questions, “Wilder Mind” remains, undisturbed, pitched directly at your approval sensors yet comprehensively not about you.
If there is any hope of a final thought about what Mumford and Sons have done, it is this: after listening, you may need to run to the nearest EDM festival. Suddenly, those predictably pulsing beats and coming-a-mile-away drops will seem resolutely urgent and full of visceral life. A song like Avicii’s “Wake Up”—every bit as trenchant and anthemic as “Wilder Mind” posits itself to be—will become a cornucopia of honest, open, and celebratory delights.
With a decent groove and a hummable tune, even the most opportunistic hodgepodge of country, soul, dudebro, and electro gives you some love. Hagridden with lovelorn signifiers (if you can manage to key into the lyrics), “Wilder Mind” only demands, like a bad significant other. Listen to me. Puzzle over me. Indulge my ineffable mystery. Explain me, for I cannot explain myself.
Yet, no matter how unbearable a relationship like this, we’ll damn well endure it, if only the chemistry’s right. Though “Wilder Mind” was clearly assembled in Dr. Faust’s laboratory, chemistry is the one thing it’s entirely without.