Mumford & Sons became one of the most unlikely success stories of the 21st century thanks to a sound that combined the ancient authenticity of banjo-hammering folk music and the polished, anthemic pump of modern rock — like a horse and buggy designed in a Tesla factory.
But the Mums weren’t satisfied to spend life staging hoedowns in sold-out hockey arenas, so they ditched acoustic instruments and plugged in for their third LP, 2015’s Wilder Mind, an indie-rock-steeped affair recorded in Brooklyn with Aaron Dessner of the National that doubled down on frontman Marcus Mumford’s heartsick romanticism. Commercially the move was a disaster, and, in some ways, their fourth LP, Delta, is the kind of course correction you’d expect, turning toward an eclectic vision of pop with help from producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay). The sparse, digital beats on “Picture You” and “Woman” could be pasted in from a Khalid track, and the single “Guiding Light” spritzes their signature barrel-chested group vocals and manly strumming with angelic electronics. Elsewhere, Epworth uses tricks to give string-band instrumentation a hypnotic feel that can recall West African guitar blues.
The problem with Delta is that it feels overwhelmed by its ambitions. The Mumfords constantly fall into the trap of confusing seriousness with grimness, revealing the goth soul lurking beneath their folkie exterior. “Come and suffer here,” Mumford growls on the woeful stomper “Slip Away,” like he’s MC’ing the grand opening of a trauma ward for people afflicted with too much emo. Many of these songs deal with what the band calls “the four D’s: death, divorce, drugs and depression.” “If I Say” evokes two D’s at once, decking out a fading relationship with lachrymose imagery (“The innocence in your face/Bled out without a trace”). These dark obsessions weigh down the music. On “The Wild,” soft, detailed prettiness and Mumford’s tenderly rumbling baritone get swallowed in lugubrious orchestration; even worse is “Darkness Visible,” in which Americana artist Gill Landry reads from Paradise Lost over a track that suggests Trent Reznor gone all A Beautiful Mind.
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Mumford’s arcane notions of romance don’t lighten things much; in “Forever,” he gets his puritan scold on: “I’ve known pious women/Who have led such secret lives/Shameless in the dark/So shameful in the light.”
The man just wasn’t made for these times — which gets to a paradox at the heart of Delta. The Mums were much more likable back when they were pretending to be coal miners who churned their own butter. Compared to this stuff, that was a decent look.