The trophy for Punkest Gesture of 2018, in a shocking upset, is hereby awarded to Marcus Mumford, leader of arena-folk titans Mumford & Sons, for yawning on camera during the royal wedding this past May. Incredible. That he was probably on camera because he was sitting next to his wife, pretty famous actress Carey Mulligan, only magnifies the punkness of the gesture. Likewise the fact that Mumford & Sons’ myriad haters would argue that no band was more likely to inspire the phrase “viral yawn.”
That’s what you get for getting too popular by being too earnest. I confess that I quite enjoyed the London quartet’s 2009 debut album, Sigh No More, with its acoustic-guitar-bashing ardor and macho-angelic vocal harmonies and robust banjo and reliably bombastic earworm choruses. (The very aggressively edited version of “Little Lion Man,” with its climactic line “I really fucked it up this time,” was always a hoot to hear on the radio.)
But this is the sort of music one must confess to liking: A band this old-timey stylized and coffeehouse-poet sincere, chasing a classic sort of grandeur by nearly eschewing electricity entirely, was bound to raise a ruckus. Pitchfork, for example, denounced Sigh No More as “a shallow cry of authenticity,” and the Mumfords themselves as “more like a business than a band” content with “playing dress-up in threadbare clothes.” (The review score was 2.1 out of 10, which, for the record, makes Sigh No More exactly 0.5 better than Greta Van Fleet’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army.)
This situation did not improve as the band—Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, and Ted Dwane, singers, songwriters, and multi-instrumentalists all—rose in prominence. Mumford & Sons went from backing up Bob Dylan on “Maggie’s Farm” alongside fellow folk revivalists the Avett Brothers at the 2011 Grammys to the second M&S record, 2012’s Babel, winning the Album of the Year Grammy in 2013, beating out Fun’s Some Nights (thank goodness) and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (holy shit).
Babel, too, had modestly gigantic-sounding hits that worked great as throwback contrast on moribund modern-rock radio, but for many, the band had already settled into ye olde complacency. “This Is Every Mumford & Sons Song Ever,” sniffed the 2013 BuzzFeed headline to a piece that further argued you could sum up the band with just this GIF. Other hot takes that year ranged from “Don’t Let Mumford & Sons Trick You Into Liking Them” (Noisey) to “Why Did We Bother Hating a Band as Boring as Mumford & Sons?” (Flavorwire).
The Mumfords fought back against this perception, in their modest way, by hiring Jason Sudeikis, Ed Helms, Will Forte, and Jason Bateman to spoof their Rural Outfitters image in the video for Babel single “Hopeless Wanderer.” But changing hearts and minds required changing the band’s sound, which in turn required modernizing it, which in turn threatened to dilute what made them so distinct, so lovable, and so hateable in the first place. Wilder Mind, from 2015, cranked up the electric guitars and keyboard washes and gauzy dim-neon Coldplay melodrama to diminishing returns and far less attention. (“Believe” was dope, though.)
The band’s fourth album, this week’s Delta, pushes things even further, into Spotify-core electro-pop and jazz-odyssey meandering, and includes a stormy spoken-word head trip called “Darkness Visible” that has earned at least one comparison to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (It does not remotely resemble “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) These fellas sound way less hateable lately, but also a little less like themselves. It beats the hell out of Imagine Dragons, at least, but that used to be the least of it.
One problem is that Mumford & Sons are now old enough to constitute a throwback to their earlier selves, to the tastefully bearded neo-folk that lit up Bonnaroo and various SUV ads in the early 2010s. Fleet Foxes made the best albums, the Avett Brothers played the best shows, the Lumineers had the single stickiest hit, Of Monsters and Men had that other big song that involved yelling “HEY!” a lot, and the Mumfords towered over them all, packing arenas with what The New York Times described, half-admiringly and half-not, as an “astonishingly loud” brand of “bro-folk.” (The band also occasionally enjoys touring America by train.)
All of this rustic grandeur—a lot of mandolins, a lot of Civil War–battlefield love-letter poesy, a lot of worn-in boots stomping a lot of creaky wooden floors—made for a lovely contrast with the brute-force EDM that had infiltrated both the pop charts and the music festival circuit by 2011 or so. But all those valiant attempts to sound timeless can’t help but sound a little dated now.
Delta is no radical departure. The single, “Guiding Light,” balances the familiar (them chugging guitars and aw-shucks romantic sentiments) with the equally familiar, just not from this band (there’s enough dance-pop whoosh that it sounds like a Zedd remix of itself). There is a song called “Rose of Sharon” that includes the heartfelt line “I will be yours and you will be mine / Ere our lives entwine” and starts off sounding like a Killers song for exactly 13 seconds, before the keyboards give way to the handclaps. There is an overly gentle piano ballad called “The Wild” that takes forever to get going but eventually starts piling on the martial drums, the ecstatic string section, the time-honored whoa-oh’s. There is another overly gentle piano ballad called “Forever” that suddenly cranks up the vocoder, like an Imogen Heap ripoff of itself.
None of this is sacrilegious or even particularly bad, but there’s a discomfort in how eager these guys are to evolve, and how inexorably they’re drifting instead toward The Middle, as mid-prestige chart-rock slush goes. Mumford & Sons are working very hard to avoid being pigeonholed to either the vague, bygone, sepia-toned era they started out evoking or this current, much more recent era. Their records keep getting fuller, and fancier, and less immediate; at some point they’ll pull a Back to Basics 180, with no more electricity and way more banjo, and it’ll probably kick ass. But Delta, tastefully but emphatically, does not.
Stick with this record long enough, though, and you are rewarded by the title track, which likewise takes its sweet time but eventually blossoms into a shout-along, Springsteen-disciple coda that gets just enough of a overproduced push to sound timeless and effortless. (Marcus Mumford is now famous enough to get his band brought out onstage by Bruce Springsteen, but still sheepish enough that he forgets the words to “Hungry Heart,” also a very punk-rock gesture.) Mumford & Sons are trying to give die-hard neo-folkie types what they love without giving haters what they love to hate. But for now they’re mostly just doing less with more.