What happens when a band’s name becomes something else — specifically, an adjective for the bands that followed in its wake, tweaking the template that drove it to popularity just enough to be differentiated in the minds of festival bookers and radio programmers? The case of the British quartet Mumford & Sons provides at least one answer. Since its formation in 2007, the band has been known for its tweaked take on Americana, which uses the building blocks of folk songs to create anthems worthy of whipping up polo field-size crowds; other janglers found similar success, serving as aggressively acoustic counterpoints to Spotify- and iTunes-era of music being transmuted into zeroes and ones.
But on “Wilder Mind,” Mumford & Sons’ third studio album, the band dispenses with the template that made “Mumford” a sometimes pejoratively employed descriptor of a subgenre, plugging in and wiping away the furious string-strumming — it’s not quite Dylan going electric, but the album’s first note does come from a heavily distorted guitar.
The song into which that sustained note leads, “Tompkins Square Park,” possesses the tightly wound energy of earlier hits like “Little Lion Man” and “I Will Wait,” but its precise electric calibration echoes recent alt-pop hits by the likes of Neon Trees. This is not the Mumford & Sons that conjures up sepia-toned images of suspendered men playing their hearts out.
Mumford & Sons initially worked out “Wilder Mind” at a studio that belongs to Aaron Dessner, chief songwriter for the similarly festival-beloved Brooklyn, N.Y., outfit the National. That band came to prominence in part because of its penchant for grand understatement, building tension through atmosphere and subtleties. In the hands of the grandiose Mumford & Sons, this shading doesn’t quite work, forcing the band to shape-shift in a way so it sounds . . . well, not quite like itself. The title track’s hum recalls the National’s slow-burn jitters, but drags past the point of being able to sustain that mood. Tracks like “Ditmas” and “Snake Eyes” amble pleasantly, but lack high points.
Meanwhile, frontman Marcus Mumford’s vocals, which on earlier records possessed just enough of a burr to place his eponymous band’s folk squarely across the Atlantic, is smoothed out to the point that it at times brings to mind the mournful wail of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, particularly on the shimmering “Believe.”
Tucked away at the end of the album, the drumless ballad “Cold Arms” serves as a satisfying midpoint between Mumfords old and new, with an up-close vocal lovingly framed by a just-fuzzed-enough guitar. More tracks that similarly played to the band’s strengths would have prevented “Wilder Mind” from sounding more like a statement of intent than an identity-crisis confession. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Cold Arms”Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.