Mumford and Sons-Style Folk No Longer Rules the Charts, But Don't Think the Band Doesn't Have Staying Power

click to enlarge Mumford and Sons-Style Folk No Longer Rules the Charts, But Don't Think the Band Doesn't Have Staying Power
Photo by Gavin Batty
For some time now, Mumford and Sons has tried to convince us they don’t need a banjo to make music. They left the instrument that helped catapult their brand of folk-pop to arena-filled stardom by the wayside back in 2015 with the release of the rock heavy Wilder Mind.

“I don’t really believe in possession or ownership of a particular sound,” frontman Marcus Mumford recently told Uproxx. “What’s so interesting about bands like Radiohead or Arcade Fire is that you always know it’s them, and it doesn’t just sound like one thing. I think our band has struggled at times with people thinking that we’re one thing, but we’re really trying to be not that.”

Clearly, the band wants to be taken seriously. And to do that, they ditched their hipster hats and mostly-acoustic instrumentation — fans be damned.

But while that record, and its follow-up, last year's Delta, may not have sparked any serious singles, rest assured the English four-piece is still big. Those albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and come Saturday, March 9, the band is storming Quicken Loans Arena as part of its current world tour.

Perhaps not all fans have stuck with them since going electric, but not everyone stuck with Bob Dylan either. Mumford brought the neo-folk movement to the forefront in the late-aughts. Now, like the rest of pop, Mumford and Sons wants to move on from all the “ooohs” and “ahhs” and claps and stomps that dominated that musical time. But, for better or worse, that doesn’t mean the band is going anywhere.

Folked From the Start

There’s no reason that folk music needed to make a comeback on the pop charts, other than that all things are cyclical. Somehow in 2009, with the release of their debut album, Sigh No More, Mumford and Sons took watered-down folk music mainstream. They were hardly the first of that era — with acts like the Avett Brothers and Fleet Foxes laying the groundwork — but the brisk-paced acoustic guitar (and yes, banjo) of the Mums’ “Little Lion Man” was undeniable. The tune moved a lot of people, and it especially spoke to the young adults coming straight out of college into the recession-hit job market.

“Weep little lion man/You're not as brave as you were at the start/Rate yourself and rake yourself/Take all the courage you have left,” the song begins.

The unsure lyrics paired with its fizzing energy landed the song at No. 45 on the Billboard charts along with a slew of emotional followers. When the band played the tune on Late Night with David Letterman, it was clear the comedian didn’t know what to make of the group.

“Pretty good, huh?” Letterman asked his audience. He then joked, “They’re going to take the money they make for being this show tonight and hire a drummer for future gigs, so this is a real breakthrough for them.”

By then record, executives figured that what made Mumford seemingly special needed to be bottled and mass-produced. Other acts offering similar sounds, like the Lumineers and the Head and the Heart, suddenly had an outlet, and tons of unsigned acts took up the banjo hoping to make it big. Hit makers whipped up the syrupy sweet acoustic-guitar driven “Home” for Phillip Phillips after his American Idol win in 2012, and that song is still the show’s best-selling tune. Swedish DJ Avicii also cashed in, producing one of the biggest barn-burning tunes of the decade with “Wake Me Up.”

But after Mumford’s sophomore effort Babel won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2013, it wasn’t just the public that was growing banjo weary, Mumford’s own banjo player Winston Marshall told Vulture in 2014: “I think ‘killed’ is an understatement. We murdered [the banjo]. We let it, yeah — fuck the banjo. I fucking hate the banjo.” The band announced a long break, which many surmised was a permanent split.

As Daniel Goldmark, a professor of music at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Center for Popular Music Studies, says, the way the band took indie music mainstream was a golden moment but was most likely unsustainable. Goldmark says no matter what the listeners want, Mumford and Sons and Dylan (during the folk revival of the 1960s) had to change for their own perseverance.

“This gets to the deep question about whether the band owes the fans something,” Goldmark says. “A performer is entitled to do whatever the heck they want, but I’m under no obligation to listen to it. People believe there’s a musical social contract where a band has to play the hits. But if a band is still producing new stuff how can we begrudge them the space to play those songs?”

Folk Forward

If Mumford and Sons’ recent record of any indication of what is to come, they’re still interested in filling basketball arenas with anthemic songs and even using some of those old folk instruments but only on their terms. Each track on Delta is highly produced and stylized; it's like they’re reaching for every instrument possible.

“I hope [Delta] can connect with people,” Mumford told Esquire in a recent interview. “It doesn’t need to be liked by everyone — if it was, then taste would no longer exist. But people knowing that these songs are written honestly is important to me, that it wasn’t some sort of fabrication.”

Folk music meanwhile, which has survived nearly a century, will be just fine whether Mumford and Sons pick up a banjo ever again.

Only time will tell if Mumford and Sons is a band part of a movement or one that can defy genres.

“Are they going to be pinned to a time and place?” Goldmark wonders. “When we think of the music of a ’70s or ’80s or a certain political climate, are they going to be compartmentalized like that, rather than be known for who they are? It’s hard to say.”

Mumford and Sons, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9, Quicken Loans Arena, 1 Center Ct. 216-420-2000. Tickets: $41-$101,
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