Mumford & Sons: Guiding Light

Mumford & Sons: Guiding Light

Rectifies the dissonance between intimate songwriting and high-end programming and production.

Mumford & Sons: Guiding Light

3 / 5

After the smash success of 2013’s Grammy-winning Babel, Mumford & Sons wisely regrouped and refocused. Their English folk-centric sound won hearts, awards and platinum records over the course of two albums, but continuing with the same sensibility on another acoustically-orientated release would run the risk of feeling stale and predictable. The atmospheric, synth-heavy vibe of 2015’s Wilder Mind was a welcome departure, albeit one that left some fans and the critics in the dust (also, it must be recognized, the folk/global fusion of their Johannesburg EP was a sadly overlooked gem).

Delta, their first proper full-length in three years, rectifies the dissonance between intimate songwriting and high-end programming and production. Synth chords and drum loops can naturally feel synthetic and impersonal, but expert crafting can make them sound natural alongside Marcus Mumford’s tender vocals and the group’s solid songwriting. An inevitable outgrowth of their folk past and evolving sound, Delta teeters between sincerity and struggle as the band pushes further into the digital realm.

It would be easy to disregard opening track “42” with its auto-tune vocal finesse and epic reverb-drenched drums were it not for the sincerity in Marcus’ lyrics. It’s easy to arrange and dress up a song in any multitude of ways, but fine songwriting will always shine through, digital manipulation or not. Leading single “Guiding Light” was produced to sound appealingly commercial, featuring some questionable dance beats and swirling synths. Still, when it comes to melody and content, it’s precisely what we want from Mumford & Sons, a track ripe with optimism and a catchy chorus.

Folk purists will be happy to hear the promising return of acoustic instruments, tastefully blended with the electric guitars and digital manipulations. More so than just grounding the album in the tangible world, they give tracks visceral energy that programming and synths can mimic but never replicate. The propulsive strumming and picked lines on “Guiding Light” and “Slip Away” display an evolution from band’s folk past, specifically how they’ve moved from using guitars and mandolins as central instruments to tools for conveying a sonic purpose. An apt name for their fourth album, Delta shows the maturity of Mumford & Sons as they reconcile the allure of the digital with the tradition of the analog.

Inevitably, with progress, comes occasional missteps. The programmed snaps and glitchy bass drums throughout “Picture You” and “Rose of Sharon” will divide listeners, emphasizing the tension between the band’s folk roots and their new digital horizons. The purity of the songwriting is still there, but the sleek pop production cliches rob both tracks of a bit of soul. Radio-friendly they may be, but they lack the humanity that made Mumford & Sons’ first two albums great. Combine these with the dark lounge chill of “Darkness Visible” and Delta suddenly feels like it belongs to a different band, one far removed from Mumford’s beloved banjos and mandolins.

It’s revealing that the back end of the album features tracks more aligned with the band’s pub singalong style. The structure and melody to “Forever” sounds like a long-lost English ballad, steeped in an integrity no amount of synth strings and programmed beats could distort. Likewise, the sentiment and hook at the center of “Wild Heart” will surely make it a favorite in live settings. The tension between real instruments and electronic programming on closing track “Delta” seems to sum up the theme of the album: reconciling their acoustic folk past with the digital lessons learned from Wilder Mind.

There’s no denying the maturity shown by the band on Delta. Mumford & Sons, like every band, need to evolve and reach new sonic levels beyond the folk sensibilities on their prior albums. The enhanced studio production here isn’t a misfire, but it doesn’t elevate their sound in a way that seems as fruitful as die hard fans may hope. At best, they add striking new colors, but at worse they reduce otherwise fantastic songs into bland radio fodder. Consider it another step along the path of a band always reaching for the next horizon.

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