Album: Delta

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.

Everything Now


Album: Everything Now

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: July 28th, 2017

Highlights: Everything Now, Creature Comfort, Electric Blue, We Don’t Deserve Love

Bands change. The only groups that never had to hear their fans complain about how they should go back to writing songs such as those of their good old days were those that limited their careers to one release, such as the Sex Pistols and The Heartbreakers. The fact that Arcade Fire has abandoned the indie rock brand they explored during their first masterful three albums has to be accepted. However, the fact the grounds they chose to explore in the two releases that followed their initial golden trilogy have yielded little to no significant results cannot be ignored. Following “Reflektor”, which tackled music from the disco and new wave era as well as Caribbean rhythms without doing them justice, the band leaves the sunny drumbeats of calypso behind and opts to further sink their hands into the synthesizers and keyboards that ruled over pop music through a portion of the 80s. “Everything Now” is the result of that move.

It is impossible to deny Arcade Fire has always thrived in making their albums thematically cohesive. The wonderful “Funeral” was about loss; the powerful “Neon Bible” gravitated towards a criticism of mass media; and the spectacular “The Suburbs” longed for a not-so-distant past. “Everything Now”, like “Reflektor”, leans in the direction of isolation. The difference is that while in “Reflektor” loneliness rose because of technology, in “Everything Now” the subjects of the lyrics find themselves alone due to consumerism (as exposed by the title track) and the self-centered Internet culture that makes people desperately strive for approval (as highlighted by “Creature Comfort”). The point the band makes is solid: not only because the hollow happiness found in purchases and likes does indeed lead to empty lives that hit the floor of depression quickly when the frailty of that joy is revealed, but also because these contemporary troubles speak to the hearts of a considerable part of their audience.

The problems, here, lie elsewhere. Firstly, they exist in the lyrics. There was levity and poetry to the four records that came before “Everything Now”. In this fifth work, however, the message is delivered through a ham-fisted approach. There is no space to read between the lines, which would be fine if there were some cleverness to the verses, but the smartness of “Everything Now” is summed up by the pun between “Infinite Content” and “Infinitely Content” the two tracks that divide the album in two halves drop. Secondly, there is the music. The album does hold redeeming moments: the title track has a catchy chorus and a warm instrumentation courtesy of a simple inspired piano riff and a precise keyboard; “Creature Comfort” is a decent shot at synthesizer-driven rock; “Electric Blue” is a good piece of synthpop, wonderfully sung by Régine Chassagne, that recalls Blondie’s ventures into the genre; and “We Don’t Deserve Love” is genuinely gorgeous, serving as the album’s clear peak.

Elsewhere, though, the band appears to be completely uninspired. The melodies are dull or non-existent, the tracks lack interesting dynamics and emotional appeal, and there seems to be such a shortage of ideas that concepts that could have been interesting as elements of a song end up being the cornerstone of most of the tunes. All of these complaints apply to “Peter Pan”, “Chemistry”, “Good God Damn”, and “Infinite Content”, which easily rank as some of the worst songs the band has ever put out. The good news that does come with “Everything Now” is that, fortunately, bands change, which means the Arcade Fire detour into new wave is likely closer to its ending than to its beginning. Therefore, a journey that has produced just a few gems worthy of being kept and two terribly irregular albums may soon give way to a more promising path, one in which Win Butler and company may hopefully put their musical gift to better use.

Make Yourself


Album: Make Yourself

Artist: Incubus

Released: October 26th, 1999

Highlights: Stellar, Drive, I Miss You, Pardon Me

Good music must be written with a purpose; it needs to be fueled by genuine intentions and, most importantly, it requires a clear target. Songs that are composed for everyone usually end up striking no one in particular, standing on a weird middle ground that separates universal adoration from total indifference. In “Make Yourself”, Incubus seems to be stuck on that island: there is little to nothing about the album – save for few tracks – that is truly remarkable; likewise, almost none of it – with the exception of occasionally embarrassing lyrics and “Battlestar Scralatchtica”, a four-minute instrumental starring turntables – is downright awful. Its strongest songs (which include the notable ballads “Drive”, whose acoustic setup was a first for the band; and “I Miss You”, with its swirling delicate guitar and a brief touching chorus on which the title is sung with heart) will still move those who grew up listening to them; however, save for that understandable nostalgic beauty, the record falters under a contemporary light.

And that is because “Make Yourself” does not seem to be willing to make the effort to get to the place where it wants to go to. It is quite obvious what Incubus wanted to do here: the band was bent on surfing the radio-friendly nu metal waves of the turn of the century. It is quite unmissable, though, that the group did not make it, for “Make Yourself” is still stuck on the funk rock wackiness of the two records that preceded it, and trying to pair up the extravagance and tongue-in-cheek humor of that genre with mainstream aspirations – which are evidenced in the album’s clean production and blatant hit singles – can only be done when one has the flexibility of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” era, and there are not many groups that can make that claim.

Despite the fact it is walking on a tightrope between the Red Hot Chili Peppers (sans the self-awareness), Jane’s Addiction (minus the delightful debauchery), and ensembles from the nu metal scene (with a prominent DJ included), without the bravery to jump straight into any of those pools, “Make Yourself” manages to hold some good moments in addition to the pair of calmer tunes that propelled it to stardom. “Stellar”, for instance, is a great exercise in dynamics, with a quiet verse that explodes into a chorus backed up by a wall of guitars Linkin Park would ride to the top of the charts one year later; “The Warmth”, meanwhile, has a chorus that – melodically – might be the album’s finest hour, and – as a bonus – it has a perfect merge between turntable effects and distorted guitars; and the title track sends a message of self-reliance and independence with a vocabulary that is aggressive enough to justify the tune’s loudness.

Three records into their career, Incubus attempted to grow out of their funk rock beginnings; and, while such a move was definitely commendable, its conduction was definitely a bit misguided, because “Make Yourself” lacks purpose and audacity, trying to move to new grounds and simultaneously making sure its roots are still attached to the place it has just left from. Thankfully, though, such a period was not in vain, for it was a change that – down the line – would yield positive results in the shape of “Morning View” and “A Crow Left of the Murder”. That, however, does not save the album from being, at best, average and inoffensive.