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What Did Mumford & Sons Gain by Losing the Banjos?

Mumford and Sons are all banjo'd out.EXPAND
Mumford and Sons are all banjo'd out.
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Remember Mumford & Sons? It might seem strange to think, but half a decade ago, the English band was a ubiquitous force in pop music. The group's 2013 album Babel debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and U.K. albums charts and later won a Grammy for Album of the Year. The same year, the band headlined the U.K.’s biggest festival, Glastonbury, and snagged the second spot on the Bonnaroo lineup behind Paul McCartney. Mumford & Sons were huge, the flagship of an indie-inspired folk revival in pop music that extended to bands such as the Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men, a trend that rang the death knell for indie culture as it marketed everything artisanal, old-timey, and twee.

And you know what Mumford & Sons' sound was? The sound that swept the English-speaking world? Banjos. Goddamn, shit-kickin’, completely ridiculous banjos combined with husky vocals and hopeless-romantic lyrics that sound like they were written by a minstrel in 1852 and left in an attic to rot. Even worse, every single song on the band's breakthrough album, Sigh No More, sounded exactly the same. Banjos, banjos, trite verses about love, and more banjos — and they just got louder on Babel.

Following this pattern, you might expect the group's latest album to be even louder, even banjo-ier. But you’d be wrong, because Wilder Mind, released in 2015, is a rock album. The banjos and lutes and acoustic guitars have been smashed to bits. The record features rousing, anthemic numbers such as “The Wolf” and “Ditmas,” which use electric guitar and bass as their central elements. “Believe” even uses, incredibly, synths. It sounds like Coldplay in 2005; with its atmospheric beginning and energetic final act, it’s basically a slightly less interesting take on “Speed of Sound.”

Essentially, Mumford & Sons have become what Coldplay was ten years ago — neither bad nor exceptional, but with a derivative quality the older band lacked in its heyday. Perhaps Mumford & Sons sound marginally better (or less obnoxious, at least), but in doing so, they’ve eliminated what was most distinctive about them. They now sound like every other band on alt-rock radio. Now the question is this: For the fans and for the band, was it worth it?

In today’s music industry, especially for a major label act such as Mumford & Sons, every decision must strike a balance between artistry and profitability. There must have been reasons behind the bandmates' decision to ditch their acoustic trappings. Maybe they could see the writing on the wall regarding the movement they inspired, that the fickle fans of pop weren’t going to love their folk music forever. Maybe they were as sick of playing it as we were of hearing it, although that’s less likely because they’ll certainly perform “I Will Wait,” “Little Lion Man,” and the rest of the early hits for the rest of their career.

Whatever the reasons, it's more interesting to think of what they’ve lost by choosing a more conventional direction. The folk style may have been trendy, but it was distinctive. In 20 years, we might look upon it as something that captured the Zeitgeist of the early 2010s; in an age of technological encroachment and upheaval, it’s remarkable that music made with instruments used 100 years ago could gain such a foothold in the music market. The new version of Mumford & Sons may be making better music, but it’s music that could be made by anyone. The band of yore didn’t make great music, but its work resonated with many people and raised the spirits of a bygone past. In the attics of the future, only one of those bands will be unearthed, and it won’t be the one with the electric guitars.

Mumford & Sons. With Hiss Golden Messenger. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 19, at American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; aaarena.com. Tickets cost $41 to $61 via ticketmaster.com.

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