Mumford & Sons have thrown away the banjos and embraced electric guitars for their third album, Wilder Mind, in a major reboot that places them somewhere between the atmospheric rock of The War on Drugs and the dark, searching tunes of The National. In fact many comparisons could be drawn with Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs’ critically acclaimed record that came near the top of many 2014 best album lists (including The Upside News). And while Wilder Mind might not quite match the subtle complexity of that recording, it does display comparable strength in its judicious song-writing and a similar ambient character, complete with moody guitars that float over pulsing, uncluttered rhythms.

Mumford & Sons
Mumford & Sons

This new album represents a significant shift but one that really works. Their previous LP, Babel, was a huge commercial success and won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, transforming the thumping folk outfit into one of the biggest bands in the world. The album itself, however, didn’t seem much more than a rehash of their first record Sigh No More; sure there were some good songs, but it felt like they were just treading water. There must have been some serious temptation, though, to just keep on treading, given the success that had come their way from playing to formula.

With barely a trace of their previous sound on the new album, it’s clear that this shift is more than just the evolution of a band, but a deliberate move born from some dissatisfaction with the previous effort and a desire to move away from the formula. There’s an authentic feeling to the music here: a refreshing win for artistic integrity. It’s a bit of gamble, and risks alienating many a hipster fan, but in broadening their horizons, Mumford & Sons avoid turning into the musical caricature that had seemed almost inevitable.

wildermind-packshotThe one element that does endure from the group’s previous incarnation is their strong instinct for song-writing, which has translated intact through the transition from rollicking folk to classic rock. Similarly, Marcus Mumford remains in fine voice. His emotionally nuanced vocals actually feel more at home here, as though the shift in genre has added new depth, managing to alternate between delicate and robust at various points. And, despite the greater wall of sound here, there is also enough space in the arrangements and the production mix for the vocals to really penetrate.

This is also a very consistent effort. A number of highlights can be pointed out: “The Wolf”, constructed around a thumping rhythm that builds in energetic crescendos, the more atmospheric “Snake Eyes”, or the soft warmth of the album closer “Hot Gates”. But it’s difficult to find a weak link amongst the tracks here.

Carving out a classic rock niche, there is nothing ground-breakingly original on Wilder Mind, but neither is this a derivative affair. This is an authentic new direction for Mumford & Sons, and one that has brought out the best in the band.

Wilder Mind is out now from Universal Music Australia / Dew Process.

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Reviewed by Matthew Trainor