As perplexing as the popularity of some bands can be, few have hit greater heights of inexplicability than Mumford & Sons. To this day, it’s still a mystery why their debut Sigh No More has sold millions upon millions of copies, not only turning them in household names globally but ushering in a wave of dull-as-dishwater indie-folk acts vying to elevate themselves to similar heights (remember Passenger?). Apart from being skin-flayingly boring and as poorly written as it was though, the combination of high, twanging banjos, a stab of traditional folk rollicks and Marcus Mumford’s over-earnest bleating certainly found an audience, only to be paved over on 2015’s Wilder Mind with presumably the realisation that, if this level of mainstream high-flying was to continue, reinvention as a faceless indie-rock band was a necessity. That was definitely a better album, but pulling from ideas that Coldplay have laid claim to for years didn’t feel like much of a step forward, and even if the success never waned, Mumford & Sons have only become more and more barren in terms of identity and original ideas (not that that was fertile ground to start with, mind). It puts Delta in a place where Mumford & Sons actually have to put the work in; the fans will still flock around them but they’re nowhere near as ubiquitous as they once were, and even if they have withstood the allegations of being one-trick ponies that have dogged them for so much of their career, something drastically needs to be shaken up for this to have any sort of impact.
And if there’s one album that shows how drastic this shake-up needs to be, it’s Delta, because in what is clearly Mumford & Sons’ customary pivot towards their most polished, pop-leaning material to date, there’s still nothing that’s even remotely attention-grabbing. It’s not just a case of this album being skull-drillingly boring though (which it certainly is), but just completely unnecessary. At least in their guise as the farmers with banjos that proved so divisive, at least Mumford & Sons had some kind of identity of their own; on Delta, they’ve moved towards cavernous pop and indie-rock trappings that are so blasé and overdone at this point that this could be an album by literally any group of chancers with some sort of budget to their name, let alone one of the biggest bands on the planet. But even looking past that, what’s even more worrying is that someone actually thought this gutless, hour-long slog of an album was fit for release in the state it’s in. At least Sigh No More and Babel were energetic, and Wilder Mind had a bit more muscle; Delta has little reason to exist beyond being another guaranteed moneymaker to line its creators’ pockets for a couple more years.
At the very least, the fact that Delta is as well-produced as it is is something that it’s got going for it, especially in the clarity of the strings and the beautifully-placed cymbal crashes of The Wild or the bigger buildup from quiet guitar picking to uplifting indie anthem on the title track. When Mumford & Sons can tap into those moments of greater opulence and grandeur, it’s still not all that mobile but there’s a richness that can be appreciated. It’s a similar case with Guiding Light and Slip Away, songs which mightn’t be all that spectacular on their own as the basic, gusty indie-rock that’s very much par for the course for this band nowadays, but in the context of an album that’s so ponderously barren and devoid of memorable moments, even slight pockets of energy like this are hugely appreciated. And that feeds into how the rest of Delta presents itself, an album which, for all intents and purposes, feels positioned as Mumford & Sons’ “experimental” album in its adoption of R&B beats on Picture You or grumbling, progressive canvas adorned with highfalutin spoken-word pieces on Darkness Visible. And sure, the effort is admirable (if you were in Mumford & Sons, you’d want to sound as little like yourself as possible, too), but the execution is that of a band who aren’t exactly well-versed in diverse and interesting soundscapes. Long, empty passages meander along for the majority of the album, driven by shrunken, restrained pianos or guitar with maybe some soft drumbeats or synthetic clacks, with Marcus Mumford’s feckless warble drizzled over the top in a way that can’t muster even an iota of life or depth, stuck in a perpetual dead zone as something that exists and little else. At least when the Arctic Monkeys made a similarly distant, distanced pivot on Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, its lounge-jazz stylings at least left it with some sort of talking point; Delta may be arguably more of a natural step and better in what it sets out to do, but the focus on plodding, colourless tableaux above the melodies or rousing hooks that Mumford & Sons have proved they’re capable of feels like such a poor management of resources.
Then there’s the lyrics, and while Mumford & Sons have never been the most talented of writers (a fact that they’ve seemingly been trying to compensate for with their image for all these years), the assertions that Delta goes into darker themes feels considerably misguided, even for them. Beloved feels appropriate in that mould in its reflections on the passing of a grandparent (in a roundabout way, at least…), but not a lot seems to have changed otherwise, with Mumford’s typically uppity writing style shines through once again, particularly in any pretensions towards romance with the cod-Shakespearean floweriness of Rose Of Sharon that the blocky, tumbling instrumental can’t suitably back up, or the repeated metaphor for love as light on Guiding Light and October Skies that feels lazy and amateurish without any necessary concept to tie it all together. Get to the recital of Milton’s Paradise Lost on Darkness Visible for no clear reason, and Delta feels less like a real album and more an exercise in how Mumford & Sons can portray themselves as modern music’s learned and wizened gentlemen – as long as that never requires elaboration, of course.
It greatly kneecaps how enjoyable this album can conceivably be, and alongside the fact that it’s instrumentally barren, lacking in any momentum to speak of and just simply a Mumford & Sons album, there wasn’t much hope for that in the first place. The quality of the production does redeem it somewhat, but it’s not enough to call Delta anything close to good or entertaining. Really, it’s just another album by a band who shouldn’t even be in the position they are, ready to be eaten up by equally pretentious fans who’ll undoubtedly find some sort of artistic merit that just isn’t there. For something in the background that’s almost unreasonably inoffensive, this will more than suffice, but the alternative of not getting into a situation where that’s needed is much more attractive.
For fans of: Iron & Wine, Of Monsters And Men, Ben Howard
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Delta’ by Mumford & Sons is out now on Island Records.