Mumford & Sons Balance the Intimate and the Epic on ‘Delta’
Mumford & Sons began as a largely acoustic outfit, playing the type of rootsy music that one would expect from the band’s moniker, which the members have described as an “antiquated family business name.” Their music is like a stop in time, conjuring the romance of bygone eras with a stirring immediacy, and a passion that owes much of its appeal to stripped-down, austere arrangements. A few albums into their career, the band naturally grew tired of their formula, and ventured into uncharted territory on 2015’s “Wilder Mind,” incorporating more electric and electronic sounds. Their latest album, “Delta” is very much the culmination of their career to date, reviving the rustic stylings of their early work, while retaining the expanded sound palette of their last release, and striking a becoming balance.
Mumford & Sons’ strain of music seems designed for chest-pounding, teary-eyed, stadium singalongs, and the opener “42” encapsulates this tendency, starting with only vocals, plush and panned, with a pulse eventually taking root, and harmonies added gradually, until everything swells to epic, anthemic proportions. The relatively sparse beginning of the next song, “Guiding Light,” reveals a vulnerability in Mumford’s voice that has always been central to the band’s immediate appeal. Less than a minute in, however, everything has hurriedly been magnified tenfold, and the music seems almost too big for its own good, losing some of its potency in all the grand melodrama. “Woman” strikes a neat balance between the band’s acoustic roots and the electric forays of recent efforts. The song sounds organic and elemental, but full and fleshed out. “Beloved” will prove a treat to long-term fans, as it brings the return of the banjo. There’s a raspiness to Mumford’s voice, and an evangelical quality to his phrasing that is folky in a peculiarly English way. The song develops one layer at a time, and ends up evoking the likes of Future Islands. There’s even something of a U2 vibe, if you could strip that sound to bare essentials, trim the fat, and streamline it.
“The Wild” is a bit of a lull in an already light album — or at least it starts as such. This is music for armchair, chin-stroking reflection, and it seems to drag on at a pace that begs for some shaking up. This makes it all the more gratifying when the song gracefully unfolds into an ethereal soundscape more romantically evocative than anything on the record yet. “October Skies” shows Mumford really shining as a singer. He spends most of the album subdued and restrained, entertaining momentary musings with unassuming melodies. When he occasionally gives into bouts of passion and belts his heart out, it’s petrifyingly powerful. “Rose of Sharon” is a musical standout, more upbeat than the band’s usual fare, dancey in a quaint, Celtic way, There’s a two-note electric guitar snippet strategically placed that makes all the difference, a brilliant example of less being more. “Picture You” sounds like an alternate universe in which EDM DJs play sets in open meadows, and when it comes time for the bass drop, burly guys with beards, tweed jackets and pocket watches grab girls in long, flowing dresses for some frolicking in the fields.
“Darkness Visible” is a phrase taken from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and the song features an excerpt from the epic poem read by Gill Landry of Old Crow Medicine Show. Comedic television mastermind Armando Iannucci made a film devoted to Milton in which he devoted several minutes to expounding the brilliance of the words “Darkness Visible.” If you fail to see the genius in this terminology, as you acknowledge the existence, and clear visibility of the color black, this track might not be for you. That said, the language of the excerpt is much richer than the title, and Landry reads it with a theatricality that makes for a memorable track. “If I Say” is a song that really benefits from the string arrangements. Toward the end, Mumford merely repeats, “If I say I love you, then I love you,” but over the lush soundscape, it somehow speaks volumes. “Wild Heart” places him front and center, and you can hear his voice crack, while the band seems to pick up momentum from the fluctuations in his voice, and drift in and out of rhythm in a way that makes for an incredibly emotive experience. At moments, the musical stylings of this song recall North Carolina duo Bowerbirds. “Forever” brings back the massive stadium choruses, readymade for hand-holding and star-gazing, and the concluding, title track is the perfect culmination, combining all the elements that make this album memorable — the rustic instrumentation, banjo and all, the electronic flourishes, the anthemic posturing, and the band’s singular combination of intimacy and extravagance.
“Delta” does not take any drastic detours or demonstrate any radical reinvention, but it showcases a band that has honed their craft, and matured over the years, settling into a sound all of their own, and taking it to new levels with subtle touches that make all the difference. Lyrically, the album is all about being overwhelmed by emotion, caught on a feeling — a sentiment that the music conveys effectively, and that Mumford’s voice expresses immaculately throughout the recording. It’s a bit like William Blake reimagined for the twenty-first century, with a combination of rustic instrumentation and contemporary production that makes for a timeless, thoroughly realized album.
“Delta” is available Nov. 15 on Apple Music.