In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, keyboardist Ben Lovett announced, “There won’t be any Mumford & Sons activities for the foreseeable future,” signaling the end of the band’s four year monopoly on the folk rock industry.
After skating into the national music scene in 2009 with the acclaimed, kick-drum album Sigh No More, the band ended 2013 in a frenzy of boisterous banjo tunes, choirboy acoustic melodies, Grammy wins and unfortunate health scares as bassist Ted Dwane underwent emergency brain surgery. Almost over night, the band became an international sensation — trading in their gigs at modest London bars for headliner spots at music festivals across the globe. After the release of “Babel,” Mumford & Sons became the first band since The Beatles to simultaneously land six songs on Billboard Hot 100. The band’s stardom seemed on track to follow in the glitterati footsteps of the 1960s four-member band out of England. Yet, the final notes played on the “Babel” tour were the last for a while as the quartet sought repose from the glaring spotlights of music festivals and awards shows.
Even in hiatus, Mumford & Sons could not escape their celebrity status. Reporters scrutinized every comment made by individual band members in an attempt to reveal the truth behind the band’s disintegration and the timing of their hopeful return. Some were certain that the hiatus signaled the death knell to the four-member collaboration. Yet, signs of the band’s reemergence surfaced in late 2014. Marcus Mumford’s visceral, yet raspy voice filled the sound waves once again on a studio collective featuring discarded Dylan lyrics titled “The New Basement Tapes.” Eventually, sources disclosed that Mumford, Marshall, Dwane and Lovett were back in the studio together. All the while, media outlets continued to peddle mixed reports about Mumford & Sons, treating the band’s hiatus like a celebrity romance with trashy magazines inconsistently promising that the multiplatinum band was getting back together while also contending that the group was breaking up for good.
The conflicting rumors ended with the March 9 release of “Believe,” the first salvo from Mumford & Sons’ third album, “Wilder Mind.” However, the excitement galvanized by their return was met with both uncertainty and disdain for the band’s new sound, which bids adieu to the banjo and welcomes the synthesizer. In the past, critics complained that the quartet lacked musical range, knocking the group for clinging helplessly to the same banjo-bumping, acoustic-driven sound in each of their albums. “Believe” is an attempt to quell such criticism as it descends into the world of synthesizers, Coldplay-esque lyrics, and U2-esque guitar solos. It reveals a quieter, simpler and more polished side to the band. Gone is the tension of plucked banjo strings, the quivering strum of the cello, the stomp of zealous drum-symbol percussion, the Bible, Shakespeare and Steinbeck-infused lyrics, and the imperfect, yet compelling, rasp and twang of Mumford’s voice. Marcus Mumford, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, takes a back seat in the lyrics that accompany the synthesized melody, allowing bandmates Dwane and Marshall to unleash their heartbreak on the track. As a result, the biblical and literary allusions trademark to Mumford’s style disappears and are replaced by simple, yet somewhat vague, repetitive stanzas.
The band’s electronic homecoming tune lends itself best to a stadium setting, alongside a lineup of alternative rock luminaries such as Coldplay, Oasis and U2. Given the band’s original affinity towards intimate venues and the endearingly imperfect tunes of folk bands like Edward Sharpe and the Old Crow Medicine Show, this transition seems alarmingly out of character. After all, an aversion to the spotlight and the platinum lifestyle influenced the band’s decision to take a break in the first place.
If “Believe” is any indication of the sound lurking within Wilder Mind, then Mumford & Sons is seeking to deviate from the themes of their rookie and sophomore albums. However, some pre-hiatus trademarks still remain. The band intends to continue their “Gentlemen of the Road Stopover” shows, in which the band stages a two-day festival in random small towns along their festival-filled summer tour. Band members still rock the haphazardly sophisticated pea coat and suit vest combo. Above all, Mumford & Sons’ synthesized transition appears as more of an attempt to challenge and explore their musical range rather than an appeasement to the blubbering masses.
Despite the mixed reviews surrounding the band’s new sound, people are still willing to buy stock in the London-based quartet. “Believe” finds itself in familiar Mumford territory as No. 31 on Billboard Top 100, making it safe to say that Mumford & Sons continues to hold its illustrious place in the international music scene. Whether or not they will build upon past success lands in the fate of the band’s third, banjo-less soundtrack to debut on May 4.