One of my clearest and sourest memories from high school comes from when I told a friend that my favorite band was Mumford & Sons. This friend was a talented and hardworking jazz musician, one whose musical opinions I valued. He scoffed and said, of my most beloved band, “They can’t play.”
I was heartbroken. I probably came home from school and aggressively listened to Sigh No More, their only release at the time, and sighed much more, and thought: This was great music. These men were geniuses. My friend was mistaken.
He was not mistaken.
The band’s latest two albums signal a sadly permanent departure from their debut folk/pop sound, a formula that stole the hearts of white people around the world. But now Mumford and his sons have forayed bravely into the world of… mainstream pop mixing. And while, by definition, this sound works out commercially for most who adopt it, the make-your-own-Coldplay kit doesn’t fit for Mumford & Sons.
Much like the Beatles, Mumford & Sons got famous more for their charisma (and a few earworms) than for their talents. Led by the excellent and passionate vocals of Marcus Mumford, the band’s relatively naked sound and folky melodies were something new and different to a world overrun by sterilized electropop back in 2009 — until folkish four-piece bands were everywhere. It makes sense that Mumford & Sons would want to change their sound after four years of doing exactly the same thing, but doing so revealed a lack of dexterity that made most of their post-Babel creations unlistenable.
Delta is a new low. Its lead singles were uninteresting and unfocused, accurately signaling an album-wide theme of listless melodies, navel-gazing lyrics, and bloated orchestral builds. “Guiding Light” carries echoes of the old sound with some strings and keys plucking along beneath three-part harmonies, but these are overpowered and thrown out of context by ambient synthesizers and booming bass notes. “If I Say” is slightly more intentional, with nary a banjo or string bass in sight, but Mumford’s vocals are cut up by long periods of rest that reveal lazy production: New instruments are added to the mix but given nothing interesting to do.
Songs like “42,” “The Wild,” and the absurd “Darkness Visible” also offer protracted instrumental interludes that do very little besides get louder. They play the same four notes that the banjo might have done in past albums, but this time layered excessively on top of each other, over and over, forever. These are disorienting pieces, where you try to picture the band members playing any of these instruments and each time come up short. More than anything, the album sounds like the work of a production team, not like the labor of its featured musicians.
Most of the songs’ lyrics bespeak a profound boredom, and Mumford’s voice rarely ventures out of a low five-note range. “Woman” is little more than a four-and-a-half-minute mumble, perhaps sung directly into Mumford’s pillow in the early morning. “Rose of Sharon,” another mushy love song, features bland words and truncated melodies that not even disparate electric guitar riffs and African-inspired vocal interludes can make exciting.
Many of these songs could have been saved by simply being sped up or trimmed down. Ten of the 14 tracks are more than four minutes long — “Delta” is a sprawling six minutes, featuring two senseless time changes and at least 12 hours of three-note instrumental filler. These sprawling pieces with their slow builds and heavy layering may be crowd pleasers when the band plays them in stadiums on tour, but they do little for the listener at home — unless the listener needs help sleeping.
It is clear that sonic space and size were two pervading goals throughout Delta — and they were accomplished handily, but at the expense of the band’s primary assets. By taking away the band’s old shouty energy (and arguably their instruments), Delta revealed musical minds of little substance or creativity. The high polish and production value of this album was not enough to conceal the artlessness of the band’s key members.
With their old barn-raising charisma cast aside, nothing in the shape of talent has emerged to form a musical identity more coherent than “different from what we did before.” Better another formulaic pander than an hour-long yawn, if you ask me.
Or even this: