Why is everyone so bloody horrible to Mumford and Sons? Rarely has a band been on the regular receiving end of such an endless stream of verbal manure-hurling. And the intriguing thing, manurologists would surely agree, is that Mumford and his offspring don’t seem to have done a hell of a lot in the way of deserving it. Their “crimes”, a superficial trawl through the last five years of Mumford media can reveal, seem to consist of the following: their music’s blandness; their faux-folky stylings, both of the musical and clothing variety; their posh education; their smugness; their globe-straddling mega-success, particularly in the US, where they have gigged (as Obama himself would hopefully phrase it) at the White House; oh, and the fact that they feature heavily on David Cameron’s iPod.
Now, casting aside Cameron’s patronage (it was said that Margaret Thatcher had a Joy Division cassette in her car, and that never seemed to do either of them much harm), a lot of the Mumfords’ supposed wrongdoings are either a whopping great matter of opinion, or subject to the heaviest of good ol’ British media, and social media, embellishment. Time was, I remember quite vividly, when Mumford and his male progeny were quite cool. Around the middle of 2009, word spread that Laura Marling’s backing band had produced a catchy, banjo-laden ditty with the tender refrain “I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?” An album followed, reportedly exciting live shows were played, and a good time was duly had by all. No one seemed to care that they dressed like Come On Eileen-era Dexy’s, or that Marcus Mumford’s Michael-Stipe-meets-Mike-Scott voice sounded a little too good on the radio (albeit lots of radios). Then the inevitable happened. The media turned, the cool kids moved on, the Twitterverse started chortling with laughter. By the time the band headlined Glastonbury in 2013, although delivering a punchy performance to an undiminished Pyramid crowd, admitting you liked Mumford and his spawn on social media was akin to opining what jolly good chaps Ukip were.
So – again – why? They’re good musicians. They can write a tune and play a decent show. I fail to acknowledge that any of their hits is as irritating or pompous as people claim. They are privately educated, but then so are Radiohead and Florence Welch, and no one seems eager to thickly paint themwith the posho brush. And as for their smugness: well, I’ve only met them once – in an Italian greasy-spoon caff in Sydney, of all places – and while they seemed perfectly pleasant I was unable to form a completely rounded opinion, but I do know people who know them very well, and never-a-bad-word-was-said etc etc. Mumford himself is married to a highly capable and respected actress, Carey Mulligan, and they seem blissfully free from any attention-seeking celeb-couple antics. One of the Sons, rather than basking in bloated rock-star laziness, set up incredibly hip and productive record label-cum-promoter, Communion Music, responsible for breaking hundreds of new artists and the annual Bushstock festival in Shepherd’s Bush. In the last few weeks, admirably, the group have burst the millionaire-laden bubble of Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service, calling its stakeholders “new-school plutocrats” (the use of the word “plutocrats” alone should have generated the merest crumb of a brownie point). None of which screams to me “heap insults on the bastards and run them out of town.”
Anyway, new scorn has recently been rekindled (whether one can rekindle scorn is a somewhat moot point, but humour me) by the band’s latest album, Wilder Mind, on which they (shock! horror!) ditch the banjos and Dexy’s-wear, replacing them with electric guitars and leather jackets and, appropriately, set the controls for the land of rock. The cyber-mirth, unfortunately, has continued. So. Tired of the collection of giggling goons who have written most of the album’s reviews (I read one yesterday that even aligned their continuing success with the Conservative election victory), I decided to find out whether the music on the new record was, y’know, any good.
At this point – although the album debuted at number one on the UK chart and they hardly need my help – it would be satisfying, in a sort of standing-up-for-the-overdog kinda way, to report that Wilder Mind is the most inventive and entertaining album I’ve heard so far this decade, and that the media at large are misguided fools whose powers of hearing clearly need medical attention. Well, I can’t. But nor have I found the “anodyne and generic” or “flat, beige and ordinary” record the Guardian said I would; nor the source of Drowned In Sound‘s question and answer: “let’s see what he can do with the electric guitar – fuck all that’s interesting, on this evidence”; and nor can I locate the disc that inspired Pitchfork‘s claims that the band have located “a new bottom”, entertaining though that sounds.
Instead, my ears have been ringing to the sound of an energetic and diverting indie-rock record that is occasionally great. The banjos have indeed departed, but thankfully it’s not power-chords and squealing solos in their place: gentle acoustics and tasteful pianos still abound, while most of the songs are backlit with convincing Eno-esque bubbling guitars and synths. What also hasn’t left the building are the pleasing rhythmic structures – as much a part of Mumfords’ so-called “folk” sound as any stringed instrument – which give the songs a driving force and a nice sense of urgency. Second track Believe trots along amiably until thumping drums and, yes, distorted guitars come crashing in halfway through, but rather than being obvious and out-of-character, the track retains the band’s trademark tribal bounce; it’s as if someone’s just electrified the Glastonbury stone circle. Similarly, Broad-Shouldered Beasts waltzes along intently until Mumford’s voice shifts up a gear and lifts the whole shooting match to a nice emotional peak. Snake Eyes tears along at a breakneck pace but leaves enough space in the arrangement to keep you guessing, while the lyrics – “It’s in the eyes… I can tell you will always be danger” – suggest a darkness that’s a few country miles away from what I’d describe as beige or ordinary. In fact, for a man whose love life is, gladly, so contented, he certainly hasn’t taken the obvious or cheesy route to lyric writing, with twists and spiky turns never far from the surface: “It’s all right, take it out on me” he roars on the aformentioned Beasts, while opener Tompkins Square Park has him observing dejectedly that “I only ever told you one lie, when it could have been a thousand… it might as well have been a thousand.” Marcus, bro – we’ve been there.
Much has been made of the band’s exchanging mandolins for distortion pedals, and to anyone who finds the idea of Mumford and his brood strapping on Les Pauls and Telecasters rather ridiculous, I’d say this: at least they’re trying, and a band who kisses goodbye to a winning formula and experiments with something different is brave; not brave in the way an oil-rig firefighter is brave, but the Mumfords must at least have a few balls lurking somewhere within those newly purchased denims. Many groups – Oasis, AC/DC, Status, erm, Quo – haven’t ever dared mess with the formula. And in truth, the Mumfords’ stylistic shift isn’t that earth-shattering: even the loudest, rockiest song – The Wolf, which when I heard on the radio I assumed was probably the Foo Fighters – still bears many of the band’s rousing former hallmarks, and would actually be easy to imagine played on the banjos and acoustic guitars of yore.
In the end, I can do little else but recommend the album, although, as few albums do, it ain’t gonna change the world. If you always thought Mumford and Sons kinda sucked, this record probably won’t change your mind. If you’ve always loved them, you’ll almost certainly still love them; unless you’re a rock-hating folk enthusiast or a banjo salesman. But if you’re one of those people who thought they were relatively interesting early on, but then got swept up in the tidal (no pun intended) wave of Mumford-related cyber-vitriol, there might well be much for you to enjoy here, and it’d be nice if you could then say so, if you so desired, on your preferred social media outlets, without people reacting as if you’d just announced Katie Hopkins was sexy.
Ultimately, I fear that the reason for the Mumfords’ status as “one of the most maligned bands in the world”, to borrow Drowned In Sound‘s phrase, is nothing more complicated than that old cliché: build ’em up, and knock ’em down. Irrespective of music style, education, romantic career or cut of waistcoat, it’s awfully tempting for a large amount of people to hurl things at the successful man at the top of the hill. But these aren’t villains, or oil barons, or even derivative speculators that we’re talking about here: they are musicians, and frankly – especially on the strength of this spirited and exploratory record – Mumford and Sons really deserve better.