I sat in the back row of the BB&T Pavilion in Camden, N.J., steady rain showering the fans on the lawn behind me. Marcus Mumford had been pouring his soul into the brooding climax of “White Blank Page” when dark clouds rolled overhead and thunder and lightning sent the band running offstage. For 45 minutes the storm repeatedly teased its retreat until, finally, the sky parted. As quickly as they had left, the band returned to the stage and, as the last sunlight of the day peeked through the grey, Mumford & Sons launched into their soaring anthem “Lover of the Light.”
See, Mumford & Sons are at their best when they are embracing the somewhat cheesy theatrics of their act. Beyond the banjo gimmick, it was the conviction with which each and every member of the band portrayed the scenes of little lion men and dust bowl dances that made us fall in love with them. Even when their music bordered on too serious, they wisely called upon Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte for some appreciated levity. Without ignoring their clear musical talent, more than anything, Mumford & Sons were fun.
Then they said “f**k the banjo.” I am a firm believer in artists' need to change and evolve over time, and I knew that Mumford & Sons were way more than just a gimmick, so I wasn’t too worried. But the album that followed, “Wilder Mind,” sacrificed a lot more than just a banjo. With one album of infuriatingly dull rock songs, Mumford & Sons lost everything that made them unique.
This brings us to “Delta.” With a band desperate for change, the title sounds a bit on-the-nose, but hey, on-the-nose is what Mumford & Sons is all about, right? One listen to this album, however, reveals that the band has somehow lost even more and gained little. Lead single “Guiding Light” is nothing more than a Phillip Phillips song. “Picture You,” with its Timbaland-esque artificial snapping, is just flavorless pop. The once-captivating songwriting is absent, with each song wandering aimlessly for over five minutes as simple piano riffs are called upon for so-called emotion.
The production is perhaps the biggest failure of “Delta.” The edges are trimmed so clean as to make Mumford & Sons’ signature harmonies sound robotic. The atmospheric aura is so noncommittal that instead of adding flavor it simply clouds the rest of the instruments, making it frustratingly difficult to focus on these songs. At over an hour long, it is nearly impossible to listen straight through the album without distraction. The raw and imperfect production of “Sigh No More” and “Babel” that delivered those albums’ striking passion is sorely missed.
The best part of “Delta” by far is a three-song stretch toward the end, starting with “Darkness Visible.” Opening with a looming reading of “Paradise Lost” and some wandering strings, the instrumental track explodes into a dramatic distortion of heavy guitar and floating piano. After nine bland songs it’s the first exciting sign of life on the record.
This track leads into what may be Mumford & Sons’ most daring song ever, “If I Say.” Mumford sounds closer than ever as strings bleed in and out of the foreground. A deep drum beat chugs along subtly in the background, clearly drawing inspiration from the band’s “Johannesburg” EP with Senegalese artist Baaba Maal. The quiet synth riff and slow but steady build show a masterful level of restraint, and the orchestra comes into full focus for the swirling and shrill climax, intensely arranged in the style of Sigur Ròs or Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool.”
The quieter “Wild Heart” follows, and it’s the closest we get to “old” Mumford & Sons. Mumford once again shows calculated restraint in both his voice and his song arrangement, the stand up bass and touching acoustic a refreshing return to form.
“Delta” is the sound of a band discovering a new level of their talent and collapsing under the pressure of capitalizing on it. It is clear that Mumford & Sons poured their hearts and souls into this record, as they did with their first two albums, but immature decisions, overproduction and a lack of focus leave “Delta” a sprawling mess.
So where do Mumford & Sons go from here? Looking back, Coldplay was in this same situation over ten years ago with “X&Y.” They reacted wisely by calling on Brian Eno to produce their follow-up, and the result was the brilliant “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.” In short, Mumford & Sons are in dire need of the right producer to focus their talent. Until then, we will just have to keep singing along to “I Will Wait.”
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