Music News & Reviews

They’ve been a hit since their 2009 debut album. So why are critics still surprised?

Mumford & Sons will play Rupp Arena on March 12, with Cat Power.
Mumford & Sons will play Rupp Arena on March 12, with Cat Power.

There is a two-word term that regularly surfaces in reviews and interview stories dealing with the popularity of Mumford & Sons. It is employed in almost dismissive fashion, suggesting the appeal of the British band’s folk-rooted sound was some sort of fluke: “Unlikely success.”

It seems to matter little that vocalist/guitarist Marcus Mumford, keyboardist Ben Lovett, banjoist/guitarist Winston Marshall and bassist Ted Dwane foiled such an analogy when their sophomore recording “Babel” earned a Grammy Award in 2013 for Album of the Year. There also have been sellout tours, chart-topping follow-up records and a level of creative change and maturation that signal Mumford & Sons are here to stay.

Still, many reviews don’t budge in their estimation of the star assessment surrounding the band and its music. To their ears, the secured celebrity status of Mumford & Sons remains an “unlikely” accomplishment.

“I think the extent of it is unlikely, for sure,” said Marshall by phone from Kingston upon Thames in London. He will visit Lexington this week when Mumford & Sons makes its performance debut at Rupp Arena. “We never could have predicted it, anyway. But it’s tough to look at something like that from the outside, really, when you’re inside it.”

The “inside” of the present day Mumford & Sons involves making peace, to an extent, with the past. On the band’s 2015 album, “Wilder Mind,” Mumford & Sons eschewed the acoustic sounds – particularly, Marshall’s banjo work – that came to define the folk foundation of its early music in favor of a tougher and somewhat darker electric setting. Audiences followed, making “Wilder Mind” an international smash and an immediate No. 1 hit in the United States.

But for the 2018 followup “Delta” (another immediate No. 1 seller), the band chose to balance its rockish impulses with a return to acoustic inclinations. In doing so, the record played with audience expectations. Though the title suggests a land of vintage American inspiration, the record was actually cut at The Church Studios, a renovated 19th century church in North London. Similarly, instead of re-enlisting Markus Dravs, who produced “Babel” and its 2009 predecessor “Sigh No More,” the band opted for pop stylist Paul Epworth, whose client list includes Adele, Lorde, Lana Del Ray and Foster the People.

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“Something that has always been the same with Mumford & Sons since the beginning is that we’re always writing,” Marshall said. “That’s been something we do naturally. Even if we weren’t playing in a band, I think we would be writing songs. We’ve done that since we were teenagers. But with ‘Delta,’ there came a moment in the studio when the band came up with an idea. ‘Let’s use these old instruments we’ve been using now for 10 years and not make them sound like old instruments.’ That really opened a lot of options for us.

“Everything Mumford & Sons have done reflects the music we listen to just as the lyrics might be a reflection of the books we’re reading in some way. When we made ‘Wilder Mind,’ where there were no acoustic instruments, we were listening more to rock stuff and drum kit-led stuff, which led to that record sounding like it did. For us, the next record needed to be a mixture of both acoustic instruments with a bit of pop production influence. That came from Paul Epworth and his background. He can do anything, really. He can do pop. He can do anything at all.”

But the music of Mumford & Sons isn’t as black and white as folk and pop. In between “Wilder Mind” and “Delta” was the latest in a series of collaborative, lower profile recordings – namely, “Johannesburg,” a 2016 project that teamed the band with Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, the South African pop ensemble Beatenberg and the Malawian-British collective The Very Best.

“One side of Mumford & Sons, I guess, is our collaborative nature,” Marshall said. “So this was an extension of that. ‘Johannesburg’ came from our touring in South Africa and getting into a studio for a few days while we were there. We’ll be doing more of this, more collaborations with other artists. It’s something we will always do as a band.

“We’re always putting new ideas out there that we hope could sound different. The band is always evolving. I think that’s essential for us.”

If you go: Mumford & Sons/Cat Power

When: 7:30 p.m. March 12

Where: Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine

Admission: $84.50- $104.50

Call: (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000

Online: rupparena.com, mumfordandsons.com

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