Artist: Mumford & Sons
Released: November 16th, 2018
Highlights: Guiding Light, Slip Away, Delta
Mumford & Sons’ decision to drop the banjo and completely leave the indie folk scene in 2015’s “Wilder Mind” was not inherently bad; in fact, a change might as well have been precisely what the band needed at the time. With their two first albums, “Sigh No More” and “Babel”, Marcus Mumford and his peers had struck a perfect balance between the pop sensibilities of the mainstream, the anthemic recipe of indie rock, and the quirky energy of bluegrass music.
It was a combination as irresistible as it was unlikely, for not many could predict one of the most popular bands of the new millennium would reach the top of the charts through the transformation of a genre, bluegrass, whose success seemed to have been relegated to a geographic region, the Deep South, and to a time period, the 20th century, that were both very distant from the English roots of the group as well as the massive appeal of their tunes. That mix of originality and fame, though, spurred dozens of imitators, and soon the sound Mumford & Sons had validated was being so overused by other banjo-wielding groups that it had deteriorated into a silly caricature. And when faced with the risks of artistic stagnation and of being lost among a crowd of indie folk rockers, Mumford & Sons wisely abandoned the ship.
The problem is that, when doing so, they ended up on the island of sterilized pop; a piece of land that is itself overpopulated. Worse yet, their destination meant they had traded their position in the vanguard of one scene for a standing as mere followers of another. With “Delta”, the successor of “Wilder Mind”, the band had a pretty great opportunity to adjust the course and leave the dull waters onto which they had veered, which would in turn make the pop accident of “Wilder Mind” feel like a weird detour in the middle of the road.
However, the direction they take here is actually the total opposite, for Mumford & Sons navigate deeper into their safe take on pop music, effectively confirming the contemporary nature of their new version. As such, all the issues that plagued “Wilder Mind” also attack the core of “Delta”, the difference is that in the latter they appear in a much higher degree. The excessively polished production kills any chance the album has of displaying organic sounds, making everything from Marcus Mumford’s voice – the focal point of the record – to the instrumentation feel processed and calculated. And if “Wilder Mind” had showcased an astounding lack of energy for a group that had become known for their explosive tunes, “Delta” amplifies that lethargy to absurd heights.
That happens because the main difference between the two records is how “Delta” is far more introspective. “Wilder Mind” held a couple of tracks that, in spite of their lustrous modern outfit, boasted the songwriting touches that Mumford & Sons had employed on “Sigh No More” and “Babel”, for they had driving beats and melodies. “Delta”, on the other hand, has absolutely none of those. The album contains more than sixty minutes of slow-paced pop. At times, it is carried by inconsequential beats; on other occasions, it is led by guitars – electric and acoustic – that are so lightly played that their presence is rarely meaningful.
And thanks to the low-key demeanor of that instrumental layer, the burden of truly giving shape to these songs falls on the shoulders of Marcus Mumford’s voice and lyrics, making the band’s leader wear the hat of some sort of pop superstar. The role, though, does not suit him, or at least it would have suited him just fine had he come up with verses and melodies that were not so shockingly mundane. As such, not only does “Delta” fail to muster any truly remarkable moments, but it also feels a whole lot like a compilation of hooks and subjects that have been approached way too many times by pop musicians.
Amidst so many monotonous sequences, the album’s saving moments come up when the band is able to sprinkle a little bit of dynamism into their sound. “Guiding Light”, “Slip Away”, and the title track are not thoroughly exciting, but they do present a continuous musical crescendo that gives “Delta” a small doses of the human spirit found in the previous incarnation of Mumford & Sons. These are tracks that start out simple and slow but progressively build into cathartic explosions that make them worth it, and although there is not much about them that qualifies as refreshing, they are at least enjoyable to listen to.
Through the rest of its length, though, “Delta” is dull to a truly flooring level. The record neither grates nor offends due to instances of sheer poor taste, which perhaps can make it work as decent background music for either the band’s most avid fans or those who like their pop to come with no special spices. But as the fourth album by one of the world’s most well-known indie groups, it is a very bad effort that shows that even though change is certainly necessary for artists not to become irrelevant caricatures of themselves, executing such shifts with success is not an easy task.