Mumford & Sons have reached a point of saturation where their music must go the extra mile to be remotely affecting to audiences. That poses a challenge for their third album Wilder Mind, which is assured both wall-to-wall radio play and a hefty amount of vitriol from critics and listeners alike. So entrenched is their musical formula, with its blend of finger-splitting banjo lines and sustained emotional highs, that most of their songs are interchangeable, and this holds true for their latest album. Although the band has dropped the folk moniker in favor of rock instrumentation, their approach is still beholden to their formulaic tendencies.

The difference between M&S and, say, the comparatively hated Coldplay is longevity. It didn’t become wildly popular to hate Coldplay until the Viva La Vida days, four albums and eight years in. But M&S experienced such a meteoric rise that they drew the hate, at the very latest, about mid-way into Babel. Nevertheless, the power of total airwave dominance isn’t enough reason for such fierce backlash from those who would profess disdain for a popular band regardless of musical quality.

Whether growing anti-Mumford sentiment prompted the switch from folk to rock is impossible to say, but as with any band pigeonholed into a scene and a sound, it’s no surprise that the band would at some point chuck the banjo and upright bass for a change of pace. Wilder Mind obliges immediately with the electric guitar-driven opener “Tompkins Square Park.” The track is a banal breakup song, but one can’t help but read somewhat into the line “No flame burns forever/ You and I will know this all too well,” which seems to acknowledge an end to their folk-rock era. As the first single “Believe” illustrates, there is a reason their songwriting lent itself so well to arena shows. Marcus Mumford’s trademark emotionally strained vocal makes its first appearance on the new album and is better served by squealing electrics. This isn’t such a big jump, after all.

Despite the switch from acoustic to electric, Wilder Mind does not feature a more aggressive band. The most raucous track here is “The Wolf,” which builds heavy drums and traditional rock riffs into something akin to Kings of Leon. Instead, the bulk of the albums sound is mellow and much more subdued than before. Tracks like “Snake Eyes” and “Hot Gates” feature subtle delivery, bordering on talk-singing à la The National. In dispatching the folk encumbrances, M&S also said farewell to a host of big band hoedowns. For all the hubbub about new instruments, they don’t actually do much with their electric guitars and synthesizers. Marcus Mumford builds most songs around the pairing of his vocal and an unintrusive guitar, maybe with some bare-bones percussion thrown in. “Cold Arms” and “Monster,” in particular, avoid the patent Mumford crescendo.

As with Babel, problems arise in the form of shallow lyrics. And a major contributing factor is M&S’s insistence on revisiting the same themes of love (new, unrequited, you name it) and loss. They are popular themes, the cornerstones of great music, but here all the effort and emphasis has been placed on going electric with the lyrical content thoroughly half-assed. “Believe” may be the worst offender with “Say something, say something, something like you love me/ That you wanna move away from the noise of this place.” Is he talking to a character in the song or himself trying to write these lyrics?

In the title track, Mumford claims to have been “blessed with a wilder mind,” but there is very little wild experimentation in the group’s shift to alt-rock. There are a few radio-jammers, tracks like “Just Smoke” that simply replace country acoustics with country-twinged electronics, and two closing tracks that bring back their classic harmonizing with force. But the whole thing lacks palpable emotion, as drowned in heartbroken sentimentality as it is. Perhaps Mumford & Sons is an example of how market saturation can quash what was initially great musical talent.

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