Mumford & Sons return to musical roots on experimental Delta


Mumford & Sons, originally known for their bluegrass and country sound, released their fourth studio album, Delta, on Nov. 16, a return to the band’s musical roots infused with the more modern and electronic taste of their third LP, Wilder Mind.

Mumford & Sons — made up of frontman Marcus Mumford, keyboard player Ben Lovett, bassist Ted Dwane and guitarist-and-banjo player Winston Marshall — debuted almost a decade ago with the album Sigh No More. The band’s core sound has shifted significantly since its beginning, but not as much in formula.

Delta’s opening and closing tracks, “42” and “Delta,” respectively, build up toward classic Mumford & Sons moments in the final minute of each song, where the music ramps up in intensity and coalesces into something strong and, hopefully, gripping. The songs are all about building power. The band's second album, Babel, had a noticeably similar structure in the songs “I Will Wait” and “Below My Feet,” in which the hush of both songs’ rustic tone develops, grows and expands into a controlled cacophony.

The band creates songs that start softly and end softly, too, as in Sigh No More’s “Timshel” and Delta’s “Wild Heart.”

Delta sounds like a Mumford & Sons record, albeit experimental and electronic. Back in 2015, Wilder Mind opened with the paired tracks “Tompkins Square Park” and “Believe,” two songs that tossed away much of the band's unique sound, unrecognizable but for the singer Mumford’s dusty voice.

Delta’s “42,” meanwhile, very quickly hints that the band has not forgotten its past. Acoustic guitar can be heard among the electronically modified church organ and electric guitar, while the song is guided by the pounding of a drum beat that anchors the music to a recollection of banjoes and stand-up basses.

On “Guiding Light,” the song immediately following “42”, the acoustic sound is front and center, with a guitar leading an anticipatory track, one with the lyric, “I swear you’ll see the dawn again.” The song, released in September as a single, works as a piece about recovery and hope, but it also deals with the band’s sound.

The bright, bluegrass Mumford & Sons of the past has risen once more and fans aren’t just left with the dark night skyline of Wilder Minds’ cover.

Clearly, Mumford & Sons decided that they wanted to move outside of their musical wheelhouse, as seen by the dramatic shift of Wilder Mind and Delta’s insistence of returning to the band’s roots, but not reverting all the way. Sigh No More and Babel have a lot to offer, and it’s good that Delta shows a recognition of those albums. But it’s also admirable that Mumford & Sons want to continue developing, pushing boundaries and making sure that they’re not writing the same song over and again, just done up a bit differently.

Delta certainly cannot be put easily into a single box of categorization. Listening to the album is like riding a pickup truck into space, as dust-covered sounds meld with the cosmic, and the listeners have a chance to fall into the music, to let it envelop them with soundscapes of country and beyond. There can be no expectation of finding the same music that would have enticed listeners in 2009. Instead, it is up to listeners to choose whether or not they want to evolve their listening preferences and to take a journey with the band into new territory.

The best journey offered by the album is “Slip Away,” the musical equivalent of an indie movie montage depicting a road trip full of self-discovery, sunrises and hands hanging out of car windows. A comparable track would be M83’s “Outro” on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. “Slip Away” starts off fast and intriguing, and its power keeps building.

Still, Delta is not without its weak tracks. “October Skies,” “Rose of Sharon,” “Picture You” and “Forever” are all uncomfortable tracks in one way or another.  The modulation of voices on “Forever” is off-putting, as are the strange noises that create the environment of “Rose of Sharon.”

In terms of experimentation, “Darkness Visible” uses spoken language resembling that of a NASA mission control center. The song is not unenjoyable, but it is the kind of song liable to be skipped, as is the unremarkable and lyrically repetitious “If I Say.”

Overall, the sound on Delta is better than that of Wilder Minds, when the band last left things. This development is interesting to watch, but Delta doesn’t offer a clear hit like “Little Lion Man” or “I Will Wait,” toe-tappers that stay with listeners and encourage revisits. Instead, there are ideas, waiting for another outing, where they might just coalesce into something cacophonous yet excellent.