Mumford & Sons are the defining act of the past few years’ folk revival, but there’s always been more rock in their blood than that label suggests. Cathartic, heart-swelling anthems like 2010’s “Little Lion Man” and 2012’s “I Will Wait” are arena rock through and through, even if they are mostly acoustic — just ask anyone who has seen one of the band’s sold-out shows.
So the news that Mumford & Sons planned to use electric instruments more prominently than ever on their third studio album was no real surprise. They wrote most of Wilder Mind at producer Aaron Dessner’s Brooklyn studio, and at times, the music resembles the darkly textured indie rock of Dessner’s main gig, the National, by way of classic influences like Jackson Browne and Dire Straits. It’s at once driving and stately, ornate and headlong. “Ditmas,” named after the neighborhood where it was written, shifts from a rhythm track that’s as taut as a kraut-rock jam into a huge chorus stacked high with hard-charging riffs. “The Wolf” is open-air garage rock with shades of Springsteen, while “Snake Eyes” falls between Radiohead at their coziest and the AOR pastorals of the War on Drugs.
As his bandmates pull back on their galloping strum and shout-along harmonies, Marcus Mumford, too, moves in a subtler direction with his vocals. On 2010’s Sigh No More and 2012’s Babel, he often sang in a barrel-chested growl. Here his singing is more restrained and agile, leaning on the vulnerable, world-weary side of his lower register to explore an intimacy that can get pretty dark: “I look at you all torn up/I left you waiting to bleed,” he sings against languid chords on “Cold Arms.” Instead of a traditionalist troubadour, he sounds like a complex rock frontman.
Folkie fans shouldn’t be too alarmed, though. Even amid all the new sounds on Wilder Mind, the impassioned earnestness that made Mumford & Sons stars is still their driving force. The same cleareyed, full-hearted intensity that set the table for fellow U.K. roots newcomers like Laura Marling and Jake Bugg animates highlights like “Believe” and “Only Love,” where lyrics about balancing doubt and hope in the face of fading romance take on a universal power. “Open my eyes, tell me I’m alive,” Mumford sings on “Believe,” as rolling drums and heroic guitar flares carry him up to the rafters.
A few of the songs on Wilder Mind directly address the band’s stylistic growth. On “Broad-Shouldered Beasts,” Mumford takes his woman to Manhattan for a big night out dancing “under dizzy silver lights,” only to find she’s scared of the freedom he’s offering. And then there’s the album’s sharpest moment, the coursing breakup tune “Tompkins Square Park,” where the singer demands that someone meet him in the East Village for one last desperate shot of love. The sentiment is Springsteen, the guitars are straight-up Strokes, and even if it’s not going to work out for the relationship in this song, the music itself bristles with self-assurance. Welcome to the modern age, guys.