On March 9th, 2015, the suspenders depressingly slumped off the collective shoulders of America’s over-educated and under-employed string bands, the hipster mustaches had a little less starch, and the slide in banjo sales turned into an downright tailspin as the British outfit that symbolized the very apex of 2012’s old-timey (and in many ways, unfortunate) acoustic craze officially went electric. No, this is not like Dylan’s July 24th, 1965 set at the Newport Folk Festival where he marched out on stage with an amplified band and sent the folk consciousness reeling. Why? Because in the end, it’s just freaking Mumford & Sons.
Mumford and his collective progeny were never as good as their fiercest proponents characterized, or as bad as their staunchest critics complained. They were the product of a time when a hyper-craze happened to coalesce around a by-gone era of music that, hey, fans of bluegrass, folk, and primitive country could easily relate to. But next thing you knew there was a string band on every corner packed with guys looking like Greg Norton from Hüsker Dü, playing bad Gospel covers and Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel” on repeat. The trend went from kinda cool to critical mass in the span of a semester of an anthropology course these well-heeled and well-adjusted Caucasian boys from upper-middle class families aping poor Appalachian folks were enrolled in. It was like a Sex in the City dress up party for post grads who never hated their parents.
That’s why it wasn’t surprising at all when Mumford & Sons concluded their Babel world tour in September of 2013 that they announced an extended hiatus. Their spirited string band bit had become such a brimming fountain for comedic ridicule, a retooling was in grave order. And that’s why it should be no surprise to anyone that when Mumford re-emerged from 18 months spent parking their millions in smart investitures to hedge against the prospects that nobody would care when they tried to climb back into the view shed of the popular consciousness, they did so with an electric approach.
Mumford & Sons were never a string band. They were a pop rock British band who had stylized themselves instrumentally to take advantage of a specific trend in music. You’ll never see The Avett Brothers or Old Crow Medicine Show need to make some dramatic stylistic shift, because they’re insulated by originality. But hey, as easy as it is to bag on Mumford and their suspenders, their music wasn’t all that bad. And the backlash against them was equal in its short-sightedness as their popularity was.
Mumford & Sons tried to deaden the blow of their new approach by announcing they’d gone electric a while ago. And now we get the first taste of this Ben Franklin-aided era of post-acoustic British pop rock music in the form of their first single, “Believe.”
“Believe” is a busy, stewish, hodge-podge of sound that doesn’t really say much, doesn’t really go anywhere, and doesn’t really present any sort of united stylistic front. It’s just sort of there, making some noise at you that is not really offense, but doesn’t come across as that appealing either. It’s analogous to nothing, which in the end is the essential character mark to any Mumford & Sons song.
What is the over/under on Mumford & Son’s success as they attempt to emerge from stylistic purgatory? Handicapping rock bands has never really been my forte. I really don’t know what I believe, and apparently neither does Mumford.