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The Reinvention Game

Meeting Mumford and Aqualung All Over Again

5/12/15

It’s a sad reality that as far as pop culture is concerned, you are the first thing people know you for.

That’s how you can have someone like Elvis Costello, who for nearly 40 years has proven himself adept at a million musical styles from pop to jazz to orchestral, and people still clamor for a return to his “angry young man” days. That’s how a genuine chameleon and all-around genius like Frank Zappa can be written off as a purveyor of comedy music. Whatever the culture sees first, that’s your identity, and it’s very difficult to decide that you’re actually something else.

Which is why I admire it when bands and artists try. Reinvention is so tricky, so complicated, so risky that it's usually easier to just keep pumping out what people want to hear. When artists make radical changes, it’s usually driven by a creative desire, and I’m all about supporting those. Reinvention is different from evolution – Daniel Johns has slowly morphed from grunge-era clone to an exciting pop artist, for example, but he did so over 15 years. When I talk about reinvention, I’m talking about complete 180-degree turns, usually with no warning.

And I love them. I love figuring them out, trying to understand the connections between an artist’s earlier work and this new stuff, trying to map the journey that we didn’t get to hear. I’m not always successful – sometimes the change is so abrupt and so complete that I can’t imagine how someone got from one place to another. But sometimes, you can hear it. You can hear the conscious decisions about which elements to leave in, which elements to change and how to change them. And sometimes, you can even hear why the changes were made.

All of which brings me to Mumford and Sons. I feel bad for Mumford. Six years ago, they appeared out of nowhere with a sound quite unlike anything else around at the time. Before long, their thumping bass drum, wailing banjo and earnest lyrics became a trademark, then a cliché, then a joke. Their second album, 2012’s Babel, proved that the sound was a creative dead end – it was exactly like their debut, only less inspired. So what do you do when your entire musical identity has been co-opted into a now-passe scene, and you’re not even getting any artistic satisfaction out of it anymore?

Well, you completely change. Mumford’s third album, Wilder Mind, came with an avalanche of pre-release buzz promising one of those fabled reinventions, with photos of full drum sets and electric guitars and keyboards and not a banjo in sight. It rarely sounds anything like Mumford and Sons, at least on the surface – there are big, chiming guitars screaming out at every opportunity, there are powerhouse drums propelling things forward, and Marcus Mumford’s voice is processed and reverbed and forcibly removed from the earnest trappings of their first two records.

At first blush, this feels successful, at least somewhat. While the album opens with two slow burners, including the half-finished first single “Believe,” it erupts at track three with “The Wolf,” a big rock song on which this new Mumford meshes like well-tuned gears. When Mumford reaches high for the emotional refrain (“You’re all I’ve ever longed for”), you won’t miss the banjos at all. “The Wolf” is the record’s high point, but it’s such a strong one. Other songs in this new style work pretty well on first listen too, like the title track and “Just Smoke,” with its Mike Rutherford-style guitar figure.

But here’s the thing. Mumford and Sons used to have an interesting identity, before the copycats got hold of it. (I’m looking at you, Lumineers.) And now they’ve consciously stripped that identity away, and they haven’t really replaced it with anything. Much of Wilder Mind sounds like Coldplay used to in 2002, or like The National does now, only less compelling. Honestly, this is only a radical reinvention if the only band you’ve ever heard in your life is Mumford and Sons. Compared with literally any other band, this is average, even boring. Say what you want about their thump-thump-thump folk music, but at least it was original. Now they’re just anonymous, trying to make electric guitars and drums sound like something they’ve just discovered.

They probably could have taken several steps in the right direction by writing some compelling material, but aside from “The Wolf” and late-album anthem “Only Love,” there isn’t a song here I remember. Not the way I remember hearing “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” for the first time. “Monster” is indicative of the whole – it’s a slow, simple song with a lazy beat and no melody to speak of. I wasn’t happy with the songwriting on Babel, and I’m similarly unhappy with it here – Mumford and Sons have decided to let their new instrumentation do all the heavy lifting. And after a couple of listens, that’s no longer enough. The moment halfway through “Snake-Eyes” when the drums crash in and the electric guitars crank up, that no longer disguises the fact that the song keeps on doing the same one thing it’s been doing all along.

The problem with reinventions is that they have to work, because what can you do next if they don’t? You can go back to your old sound, tail between your legs, or you can try a completely different kind of reinvention, but once you have one failure under your belt, it’s harder to bankroll another big risk. I don’t want to say that Wilder Mind doesn't work, not completely. But it relies pretty heavily on the shock of hearing Mumford and Sons play with new toys, and once that shock has worn off – once the fact that Mumford has, for all intents and purposes, gone generic sinks in – the album becomes a much less enjoyable affair.

Still, I’m interested to see what they do after this. “The Wolf” is proof enough that they can still aim high and get there. I have no idea where Mumford goes next, but I hope it’s someplace more original and compelling than this. This reinvention needs another reinvention, stat.

* * * * *

You want an example of how to do it right? I have one of those, too, and I’ve been holding on to it for just such an occasion.

For almost 15 years, Matt Hales has been playing sad and wonderful piano pop as Aqualung. (No, I still don’t understand why he chose the name, but I’ve learned to live with it.) His pretty songs and wavery voice put him firmly in the British piano-pop tradition, but it’s a tradition I love with everything I have, so I’ve enjoyed all of Hales’ work. In fact, he’s been responsible for some of the most gorgeous songs of the last decade, including “Arrivals” and “Broken Bones” and “Thin Air.” Still, after the masterpiece that was 2007’s Memory Man, it’s been slightly diminishing returns, with 2010’s Magnetic North the (still enjoyable) low point.

Hales needed to shake things up, and oh my lord, he has. The new 10 Futures, released only overseas, makes several important changes to the Aqualung formula, and in the process completely blows it up. This is the most exciting music he’s made since Memory Man, and the changes in direction seem to have invigorated him. For most of this album’s running time, you won’t believe you’re listening to Matt Hales. And in fact, you often aren’t – this is his most collaborative effort, featuring guest spots by Joel Compass, Lianne La Havas, Sweet Billy Pilgrim and others he’s worked with as a producer in Los Angeles. He’s opened up his one-man show to other voices, and it works phenomenally well.

In fact, the first voice you hear on 10 Futures belongs to Compass, not Hales. “Tape 2 Tape” opens with the sound of a cassette deck ejecting, and then glides along on sparse pitter-pat electronic drums and whirring noise. Blatty synths and vocal samples slide in after a while, with organic drums and wailing guitar erupting near the end. The whole thing is off-kilter, odd, completely unexpected. It leads nicely into “Eggshells,” which certainly doesn’t reorient you – it’s a dreamy, almost ambient song with a skittering electro drum beat and a strange chorus, which Hales sings through a vocal processor. Lianne La Havas steps in for the second verse, and by this point, you won’t have any idea what this record’s going to throw at you next.

That’s the entire experience, really. “Be Beautiful” is like Hales’ “Viva La Vida,” a skyward-shout wonder played mainly by a string quartet. “Seventeens” brings the piano front and center for the first time, but the song takes some getting used to – it’s in 7/8, and its refrain finds Hales stuttering to imitate the sound of a slowly buffering audio file. “New Low” is a modern pop song extraordinaire, covered in strange and chiming percussion and produced with an ear toward tripping yours up every few seconds. “Clean” is low gospel with vocals by Sweet Billy Pilgrim, “Shame on Me” flirts with dance-floor funk, and “Hearts (Spinwheeloscillate)” finds Hales sitting in with Glaswegian electro outfit Prides, and fitting in nicely.

The massive variety of sound is what will thrill you at first about 10 Futures, but it’s the well-crafted songs that will keep you coming back. Every one of these 10 tunes finds Hales in fine, fine form, writing to his new styles but not forgetting the fundamentals of his pop roots. Even something as experimental as “Everything,” which feels like a proper template for Thom Yorke to follow in the future, lives and dies by its melody. And when Hales strikes a more straightforward vein, as on closer “To the Wonder,” he can make your heart soar. “To the Wonder,” like “Seventeens,” is closest to Hales’ old sound, but still sounds fresh and new thanks to the fascinating forward-thinking production.

It saddens me that 10 Futures might never be released on these shores, that American fans might stop with Magnetic North and not hear this complete (and completely successful) reinvention of the Aqualung sound. This is how you do it. This is how you rewrite your story from the ground up and make it work. There are things on 10 Futures that I never expected to hear on an Aqualung album, and now that I’ve heard them, it’s clear that Matt Hales can take this anywhere. I hope he does. I’ll be there for the ride.

Next week, the first Faith No More album in 18 years. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.