There’s a specific point in the trajectory of every musical act with stadium-size ambitions where they start conceptualizing the live show from the studio, where Coldplay starts tracking down U2’s producers, where Arcade Fire seeks input from James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Populist appeal, the logic seems to follow, involves touching as many demographics as possible, and bands that come in with a strong but very specific sound all seem to grow peculiar new interests right around album four. Album four’s where Queen and the Who got operatic, where Led Zeppelin perfected the unified stomp that would ring out for decades in rock and rap history. The biggest and best bands pressure themselves to rework their formula as the years advance because playing the same music night after night on tour is a chore, and because new styles attract new ears, and new ears keep the burgers cheesy and the bread buttered.
Mumford & Sons isn’t our best rock band, but they might be the biggest. The British folkies’ 2012 sophomore album Babel did Drake numbers in the U.K. and the U.S., where it went gold in a week and ranked highly in the list of the best-selling albums of both 2012 and 2013. Babel was a hokey synthesis of early aughts coffee-shop folk and college-kid acoustic playlist aesthetics that felt almost bionically engineered as old-millennial catnip, food for thought for the kind of people who grew up torn between new and old ways of living, who experienced the possibilities of the internet but slid into traditional domesticity anyway, who wear overalls and black wide brim hats in earnest to effect a measure of rustic flavor in their daily travels. Singer-songwriter Marcus Mumford wrote lyrics about love and crises of faith that resided on the dividing line between profundity and silliness and sang them in a brooding, mewling delivery not unlike Dave Matthews’s signature growl. The tunes were functional if perfunctory. Babel won the Grammy for Album of the Year at the 2013 ceremony in one of the most shocking choices in that category since Steely Dan’s comeback album beat out Radiohead’s Kid A for top honors in 2001.
After Babel, Mumford & Sons seemed to get tired of itself. A hiatus after the tour for the album sparked premature rumors of a breakup. When the band reconvened, the banjo player was telling people “fuck the banjo.” Album No. 3, 2015’s Wilder Mind, ditched the traditional building blocks of a Mumford song. Working with Aaron Dessner of the National, the band came up with a propulsive, synth-based sound. The thinking was solid. Spicier arrangements gave listeners more to think about than lyrics, and the grooves gave Mumford space to do more than bleat. A vital low end gave the band more to do than busk on the same plodding beat. The new songs were intriguing but still a long way from great. The value of the endeavor was getting the band to rethink and retool. But audience response was a little withering. Wilder Mind sold less than half of what Babel did in its first week and stalled out at a gold certification in the U.S. and a platinum one in the U.K., where its predecessor went triple platinum in both territories.
Mumford album No. 4, this week’s new Delta, is another reinvention. It follows a period of travel and experimentation documented on the 2016 Live From South Africa: Dust and Thunder concert film and the Johannesburg EP, which was written and performed with the British-Malawian duo the Very Best and South African artists Baaba Maal and Beatenberg. Delta finds the band and producer Paul Epworth, who was on hand for both the post-punk revival of the aughts and the explosion of Adele’s 21, embracing the electronic avenues of Wilder Mind and the band’s folky roots and expanding beyond the confines of both styles. At its best, Delta invokes the heart-busting intensity of ’80s Irish “big music” bands like U2 and the Waterboys, awarding Mumford & Sons a measure of versatility and unpredictability most of its studio albums have sorely lacked; at worst, it crosses heartfelt crescendocore and soupy, sappy folktronica without the poise of the former or the infernal catchiness that made the latter a staple in dorm-room make-out sessions and emotional network television dramas.
“The Wild” is the song where everything comes together. It’s a slow-burner that spends five minutes building from hushed guitars, plinking pianos, and a soft vocal to a stately full orchestra section destined to draw out tears in arenas. In “Beloved” and “Guiding Light,” the electronics and atmospherics of Wilder Mind and the rustic underpinnings of Babel and 2009’s Sigh No More sit so comfortably beside one another that you wonder why the band felt pressed to spin so far out on the last album. The wandering piano lines underfoot in “October Skies” and “Wild Heart” invite a jazzy flair. The former’s layered vocals recall the experimental approach to the human voice Justin Vernon explored on the first Volcano Choir album. These songs feel deeply considered, intensely labored over. Past Mumford albums have suffered for not caring enough about the groove and later for making a driving low end too singular of a focus. Delta’s creative wanderlust makes for the band’s most sonically engaging collection of songs to date, but there are moments where Marcus Mumford’s natural hamminess holds it back.
“Woman” is another entry in the long list of personal, confessional love songs that read like marital vows. Mumford’s song aims for the naked sentimentality of the John Lennon song of the same name when it ought to have nicked the hot intensity of the Harry Styles tune. A piddling melody and a rote lyric make the song a bit of a slog, a gooey conversation between lovers you’d wrinkle your nose at if you overheard it in a supermarket. The single “If I Say” suffers from a similar fate, as Mumford follows a dramatic interlude invoking author William Styron’s depression journal Darkness Visible with a chorus that can’t do better than “If I say I love you, well then I love you.” The arrangements nearly save the day again as strings, synths, and programmed drums devour the mix like a fresh coat of paint on a coughing, stammering automobile. Delta is hit or miss. When they’re on, they’re on, but Mumford & Sons albums tend to run too long for their own good, and allowing Marcus a few too many opportunities to slip into the middle of the road. His band is growing, and now his pen needs to step up and meet the music halfway.