Brought to You by the Letter M
New Things from Mumford, McMahon and Midnight Oil

I recently saw Bohemian Rhapsody. The short version of my review: it’s a terrible movie, and I had a great time watching it.

I should mention that I am a lifelong Freddie Mercury fanboy. Queen was one of the first bands I truly loved – I was a dramatic kid, and their music matched my inner life pretty closely. Freddie was probably the first musician whose work I wanted to emulate. I wanted to play piano like him (I still can’t), write songs like him (no way), sing like him (ha!), and take in the full range of musical influences that he did. I’m really only partway there on that last one, because Freddie loved all kinds of music, and could write and sing in any style.

I want to come back to that, but let’s chat briefly about the movie. It plays to me like one of those VH1-produced made-for-TV films about the likes of Def Leppard and MC Hammer. Rami Malek is very good as Freddie, and the three actors they got to play his bandmates are spot on. But there are no new insights here, and in fact the script plays havoc with the timeline, setting important events later than they actually occurred and cramming a million seismic moments into a single day at the film’s end.

That day, of course, is July 13, 1985, the date of Queen’s (ahem) killer performance at Live Aid. The film faithfully recreates almost all of the band’s 20-minute set, and it’s a marvel to watch. When the film is about Queen’s music, it’s delightful. (It also stops short of Freddie’s death from AIDS-related complications. Mercury was the first celebrity whose death genuinely affected me, and I can still remember hearing about his passing on my alarm clock radio in November of 1991.)

But yeah, for a time Queen was my favorite band, and Freddie my favorite musician, and there were a few reasons for this. One of the most important ones, though, was the band’s artistic restlessness. Queen completely transformed themselves, not only album to album but often song to song. The best Queen albums play like mix tapes, like songs that have no business being strung together, but work well anyway. I’ve always responded to a desire to avoid pigeonholing, to try anything.

This doesn’t seem to be a quality that music fans prize much, and that surprises me. I often find myself in the strange position of defending a band like Coldplay or Linkin Park, and the main thing I enjoy about those bands is their complete willingness to change everything they do. Listen to A Thousand Suns, The Hunting Party and One More Light back to back and it barely sounds like the same band, let alone the band that made Hybrid Theory. My favorite bands, like Marillion, make these sonic shifts all the time, hardly ever sounding like people expect them to.

So when I defend Mumford and Sons, it’s for the same quality. I was an early adopter of the Mumford sound, latching onto it before it became ubiquitous, and I still enjoy their debut, Sigh No More. The single bass drum thump, the strummy guitar, the banjos, the dramatic folk songwriting, it was all pretty new in 2009. But then bands like the Lumineers turned it into a cliché, and then a joke. By the time the carbon copy Babel came out in 2012, the Mumford sound had run its course.

So they did what any good, restless band would do: they changed everything. And then they kept on changing. The last three Mumford records are as different from the first one as they are from each other, embracing full-on rock, melding their sound with South African textures (played by South African musicians), and now, on their fourth full-length Delta, taking in electronics and orchestral sounds to create a meditative record of whispered beauty.

If what you liked about Mumford was their fire, this won’t be for you. But if you can appreciate a band once again chucking out everything that people might expect from them and landing on something that is at once unfamiliar and fits like a glove, then I’m with you. I haven’t been able to stop listening to Delta since I bought it. Initially I was put off by just how quiet the whole thing is. Only a few songs, like the single “Guiding Light” and the sprightly “Rose of Sharon,” rise above a slow hum. But I soon picked up on the fascinating textures the band has woven into this record, and realized that with everything kept so quiet, the moments when this bursts to life are magnified. They sound epic in contrast.

The Mumford boys have called this record experimental, and also said it finds them returning to their traditional folksy instruments. The truth is somewhere in the middle – the banjos and mandolins are back, but they’re processed and removed from their usual contexts. The record is full of keyboards and subtle drums (both acoustic and electronic), and while the songs feel Mumford-ish at times, the instrumentation never does. The band takes a lot of risks here, not the least of which is producing an album that stays at a low simmer throughout, and they mostly all pay off.

What doesn’t work? The vaguely Dave Matthews-ish “Woman” isn’t exactly a winner, although I like its chorus. I like the coda of “Picture You” more than the song itself, which ambles forward on a vaguely Caribbean beat with a strong synth pulse. And, well, that’s kind of it. I like everything else, to one degree or another, and I really like Delta as a whole. The ones I like best are the quieter ones – “The Wild” starts off almost inaudibly, but builds to a string-laden climax, while “October Skies” is just lovely, right to its a cappella ending. And “If I Say” conveys desperation without Marcus Mumford raising his voice – he lets the orchestra carry it.

Elsewhere the band makes good use of the lessons they learned making Johannesburg in 2016. “Beloved” sounds like an outtake from that project, with an urgent chorus over hand percussion and an insistent beat. “Rose of Sharon” is a highlight, raising the tempo slightly and adding bouncing clean guitar. The title track, which closes the record, is simple and quiet for half its running time, but unfolds into more of that delightful clean guitar, this time in harmony, leading to an anthemic conclusion.

I have no idea who Mumford and Sons made Delta for, but it sure sounds like they made it for themselves. It is, like all of their records, a vaguely spiritual affair, with plenty of references to guiding lights and deeper truths. That much hasn’t changed, but everything around it has, and it’s changed in a way that I can’t imagine resonating with a wider pop-weaned audience. This is an artistic endeavor from note one, Mumford and company shedding their skin once again to great effect. A few years ago I was sure that Mumford and Sons would just fade away, a here-and-gone fad. But they’ve proven me wrong, more than once now, and I’m grateful. Deltais the sound of a band who wants to be here for the long haul, and I hope they are.

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I have two more records brought to you by the letter M to talk about here, and both were pleasant surprises. Not that I expected either one to be bad, but I didn’t expect either one to exist, and I’m glad they both do.

Let’s start with Andrew McMahon, whose solo project is called Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. He’s a piano player and songwriter with a winning sense of earnest sentimentality, and I’ve been a fan for a long time. He’s only 36, but he’s fronted two bands (Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin), and Upside Down Flowers is his third solo album. I wasn’t expecting it this year, hot on the heels of his second, Zombies on Broadway, and I also wasn’t expecting it to be the opposite of that album. Where Zombies was huge and pop-oriented, Flowers is thoughtful and organic. It’s mainly slow piano ballads, and McMahon excels at those.

I do wish I liked the opener, “Teenage Rockstars,” more than I do. It’s a very simple song, but it’s clearly an important one for McMahon – it details his time in Something Corporate, a band he started at age 16. It’s just too simple for me, thudding through an obvious chord progression and melody, which is a shame considering its personal lyric. The rest of the record is much more successful, especially “Ohio,” “Paper Rain” and “House in the Trees,” which are all classic McMahon songs.

Even the lesser ones, “Teenage Rockstars” aside, are written very well here. “Monday Flowers” is a superb little story-song, one you might expect from Ben Folds or Elton John in his prime. I’m a fan of the sparse waltz “This Wild Life,” and the anthemic “Goodnight Rock and Roll,” but I have a special place in my heart for “Careless,” which skates along on a glitchy little beat to a U2-ish chorus about pushing away those who love you most. Closer “Everything Must Go” is touching, a song about moving on, yet keeping what matters most.

Considering how quickly he must have put it together, Upside Down Flowers is a really nice little record. It’s not revelatory like the first Wilderness album, but it shines a spotlight on McMahon’s heartfelt songwriting, stripping the sound back and letting the songs breathe. There’s very little Andrew McMahon could do to make me dislike him, and this record certainly didn’t manage that.

As surprised as I was to see a new McMahon album so soon, it’s nothing compared to how gobsmacked I was to hear that Midnight Oil had reunited last year for a world tour. It’s no exaggeration to say this Australian outfit is one of the most important bands to ever stride the earth, and I envy everyone who took the opportunity to see them play for what might be the final time. I would have loved to, and I can’t for the life of me remember now why I didn’t.

But at least I have Armistice Day: Live at the Domain, Sydney as a consolation prize. Recorded on Nov. 11 of last year in one of the hometown clubs where the band began (in 1972!), Armistice Day is simply wonderful. I don’t want to spend a lot of time dissecting highlights, because there really aren’t any low lights. This is Midnight Oil live on stage, ripping through a set of songs that runs the gamut of their catalog. Peter Garrett, for years out of commission while he served as a member of the Australian parliament, is on fire here, spitting and snarling some of the most politically charged material they’ve written. Guitarist Jim Moginie and drummer Rob Hirst sound like they’ve never been away.

Midnight Oil is a band we need right now, and I hope they’re working on new material. On the evidence of Armistice Day (named after one of their most urgent songs, which opens this show), they’re in fine form, reinvigorated and ready to pounce. I’m so looking forward to what they do next.

Speaking of next, we have one more straight-up review column this year, and I’ll probably talk about the great new Donnie Vie record, among others. Then we’re into December, when I’ll be posting about Christmas music, honorable mentions and the 2018 Top 10 List. The year’s almost over. I can hardly believe it.

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