In Defense of Going Electric

 

Mumford & Sons / Photo Credit: www.pitch.com

Mumford & Sons / Photo Credit: www.pitch.com

Mumford & Sons are back after a two-year hiatus, and in addition to headlining some major festivals this summer, including Bonnaroo, Reading and Leeds, they will release an album. Wilder Mind is due for release May 4. But the Sons will be making some changes to their folk rock sound, trading their storm of acoustic instruments for mellotrons, drum machines, and synthesizers.

Mumford & Sons are going electric.

This West London quartet is known for bringing roots music back to the forefront of popular culture, building a precedent for acts like The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Phillip Phillips, among others. It was a kind of second folk revival. Folk music became cool. It became famous.

In an interview with the band two years ago, Brian Hiatt of Rolling Stone reminded Marcus Mumford that such fame was predestined for him. Hiatt cites a prediction Bono made in the mid-eighties about the future of popular music in light of the coming electronic age: “It’ll be totally naturalist, probably acoustic. It’ll be the music of college campuses, because it’ll remind us of something we’ve lost.”

In this same interview, Mumford discusses how “complicated” the world has become as a consequence of electronics. He tells us that while he has “literally, like, no idea” how his iPhone works, when it comes to an “acoustic guitar played with gusto,” he understands. Of his band’s music, he says, “I don’t think we’re bringing simplicity—I wouldn’t bad-mouth our music as simple—but sometimes it’s nice to hear what you see.”

Nice to hear what you see—Mumford & Sons seemed to care a great deal about how they were seen. Their cheap, four-chord party-folk was always little more than an excuse to wear wool vests and suspenders and to stomp around on sawdust floors—like it was the dream of the 1890s or something. (But at least they were able to make fun of themselves) When Marcus Mumford says he wasn’t trying to be simple, I don’t believe him. Mumford & Sons were very much about trying.

Most of Mumford’s comments in this Rolling Stone interview resemble the kind of bullshit Jack White rattles off from time to time—like in that scene from Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud where White waxes poetic about why he likes to play broken instruments—for the struggle, for the pain. Or those academics who tried to keep Blues in the Deltato preserve it–fearing that it might become too progressive. How dare Muddy Waters pick up an electric guitar? they asked.   As if a diddley bow is what makes music  authentic. Hiatt claims Mumford & Sons are “too savvy” to buy into such notions, yet everything they have done up until this point is drenched in the same kind of nostalgia.

For Mumford & Sons, the choice to go electric is both necessary and obvious. In fact, I don’t think they ever had any substantial interest in folk or folk rock.  When they first began, their music influences included the likes of Blink 182, Radiohead, and Audioslave.  So, why were they trying so hard to be folk rock musicians?  Nevertheless, as they continue to expand their sound, to cover Radiohead songs, and pound out jams on a Korg, I can only foresee this change serving them well.

Of course, Marcus Mumford often references his love of Bob Dylan, which he expresses in his work with The New Basement Tapes. While I continue to doubt Mumford’s knowledge and passion for folk music, I’ll admit I had some appreciation for his work on this project.

Lost on the RiverThe New Basement Tapes is producer T Bone Burnett’s attempt to recreate Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes—a collection of songs Dylan recorded with The Band at Big Pink in Woodstock between June and September 1967. Burnett, who used to play guitar in Dylan’s backing band, came to possess some of Dylan’s unpublished, unrecorded lyrics, which were said to have been written during the recording of The Basement Tapes. Burnett’s goal was to find a group of modern musicians to create songs from these lost lyrics and to make a record with the same kind of energy and rawness of the original basement tapes. Musicians who worked on this project included Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops. The album they recorded is titled Lost On the River.

Showtime ran a documentary on the project, Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, which I watched recently. I was disappointed to see that Marcus Mumford had been chosen to work on this project. Of all the musicians who love and respect Bob Dylan, I felt as though Mumford was the least deserving. Each time I saw him in his stupid fedora, smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes or feigning as some severe perfectionist, I wondered if this project would turn out to be a catastrophe. I wondered how many had already deemed it as such. Of course, just as soon as these thoughts crossed my mind, Elvis Costello appeared on screen to remind me that it “doesn’t fucking matter” what I think.

While I have never really subscribed to this notion of “it doesn’t fucking matter,” I wondered what it would be like to listen to this album having let go of the cynicism I harbor for Marcus Mumford. What I found was that I came to appreciate some of Mumford’s contributions to this project. At times, I think I even used words like nice or beautiful. His work on “When I Get My Hands on You” was one of these moments for me. Although the song is sonically unremarkable—a pattern of single-string plucking,  a simple beat—there is something visceral and insistent in its simplicity. Mumford’s breathy composition brings a kind of hunger to Dylan’s words. “When I get my hands on you…,” Mumford sings, and for the first time, I think I believe him.

In the documentary, we see that Mumford struggled to bring this song to fruition. But after twiddling with his pencil for a few hours and opening himself up to the idea of collaboration, he was able to write. Not only was he able to write, he was able to step outside what was usual—that same old tacky folk-rock hoedown.

Collaboration often removes the need to cater to any predetermined expectations. These kinds of projects also tend to ease our need to organize things. And as critics or musicians, we love to organize things. We use labels like ethereal soul folk, dreamy electropop or gritty experimental indie pop rock. These are not descriptions. They are not adjectives or genres—not really. They are instead finite distinctions we make in the name of setting ourselves apart. I suspect this kind of pigeonholing has been a problem for Mumford & Sons all along. I hear it on Sigh No More. I hear it on Babel—an exaggerated attempt to become more roots-y, more folky, more sepia-toned.

mumford-sons-wilder-mindMumford wrote most of the songs for Sigh No More and Babel, but he admits that the band has shared in the writing for the new album. They have also hired a drummer for their live performances—a decision that has been long overdue. Mumford notes that Wilder Mind has more “space” than their previous releases. Perhaps this album will be an important lesson in exploration for Mumford & Sons—a needed step toward streamlining their influences into a sound they can call their own.

1 Comment

  • Casey says:

    I’m late to the party here, but this is great! I am sort of indifferent to Mumford, but there’s so much you get at here (“drenched in the same kind of nostalgia”) that I think is totally spot-on. I also have really no idea how to approach writing about music, so it’s nice to read others who are doing it well. Looking forward to seeing more from you!

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