Track by Track is a recurring new music feature that asks an artist to break down each song on their latest record, one by one.
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When you record an album in a setting as stately as London’s Church Studios, you might come in expecting an epiphany. For Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons, that came in the form of an tacit agreement between band members: During the recording sessions with producer and Church Studios owner Paul Epworth, no sound would be off-limits, no approach would go unconsidered, and no idea would die unexamined. “Unshackled” is the exact word he uses; freed equally from the accomplishments of the past or the expectations of the future, and ready to do some genuine exploration.
For as massive as their cultural impact has been over the past decade, it can be hard to remember that Mumford and Sons are only on their fourth full-length album. To hear Lovett tell it, the band regarded this milestone as potentially career-defining, with the upcoming material a chance to rewrite some of the definitions established by the band’s earlier work.
A spin of Delta reveals that many of these changes come as gentle refinements, ones that stay true to the band’s innate spirit while simultaneous redrawing the boundaries of sonic territory coverable by a Mumford and Sons album. You’ll find them in the traces of West African rhythm that run through “Rose of Sharon”, or the Juno synthesizers that give heft to “Picture You”.
You’ll also find the things that Mumford and Sons have always excelled at: massive, heartfelt anthems and lyrics custom-built with catharsis in mind (when you’re really lucky, as on the fist-pumping title track, you’ll find those things intertwined thrillingly together). It’s a beguiling mix of the old and the new, one that will likely keep old fans happy and make a few new fans sit up and take notice.
Hear Delta in full below:
For the latest Track by Track, Lovett shared his insights on what makes Delta different from any Mumford and Sons record that came before it. Above, listen to our full audio interview for his thoughts on what happens when you record a song 100 times, why playing music on TV rules, and how Paul Epworth’s brain works. A condensed, text-based preview is below.
Before we even got into the studio with Paul, we’d talked about this being the opening song of the album. We couldn’t rationalize it entirely. It just had that sense to it. I think there’s something in its DNA. […] It is interesting why songs have that. We’ve felt it before – I remember it specifically when it came to “Tompkins Square Park” and to “Babel” and to “Sigh No More”.
I think the opportunity to essentially play songs on TV is a bit of a bizarre one. It’s not something you consider when you form a band. Over the years, I think we’ve understood it more in terms of just, you get a chance every now and then to play in front of people who aren’t already interested in what you’re doing. Going on The Tonight Show for [“Guiding Light”] was one of those great opportunities.
I think there’s something about us that always loves a challenge, and so now we see those TV slots as an opportunity to sort of say hello to the world. […] We felt very confident, and continue to feel really good about “Guiding Light” being our invite into Delta. […] Paul was fascinated by the task at hand, which was to take a band that is steeped in a lot of folk and rock and to challenge some of that, and to see where further he could take us.
I remember when Winston brought “Woman” into the studio. We were just doing some writing sessions in Brooklyn, and he’d been in Nashville, and he turned up with the beginnings of the idea – the first verse, and the falsetto hook – and just felt like something that was very, very different, but also felt really good. Maybe that was a moment that we felt unshackled by anything that we had done previously.
We’ve got this concept, which is to, before committing to a track, completely strip it down to its absolute, bare-naked truth, which would be just to strum the chords along on an acoustic guitar and sing it. Marcus went through each of those 40-odd songs and played them without any kind of bells and whistles, nothing to distract you, and with “Woman”, it was almost more compelling than ever. There’s a part of me that wished we had that sort of solo acoustic version, but actually the direction that it’s taken feels really exciting to us.
[Something] about “Beloved” that Paul picked up on out of the gate was its rhythmic identity. He’s a very rhythmic guy. He almost hears songs through rhythm first. He doesn’t pay attention to the lyrics and melody in the first instance. I think that’s where you get a bit more of the danceability and the bounce throughout the album, but when it came to “Beloved”, he heard it in a way that none of the four of us had heard it, and he got us to play it back to him as he was gesticulating in the studio, and trying to enunciate the rhythm ideas. All of a sudden it was like, yeah, this is cool. This is better.
We were about three quarters of the way through the process on this album, and it was probably about midnight one night, and we were sat around in front of the mixing desk at the Church, and we were talking about songs and moments throughout the album.
We were starting to get a bit of a sense about what was what, and I can’t remember how it came up, but basically it was like, “Has anyone got any more songs at this point to throw into the mix?” Marcus sort of looked up, because he’d been working on something on his laptop in the studio whilst we were also working on some of the other songs, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ve got something today.”
Essentially, a week previous, he had gone down to his home and just built a recording studio out in the West Country of England, and he had set himself a challenge of trying to record a song using every single instrument in the studio. He’d worked up a demo that essentially sounds like what the album version is. […] None of us had heard it yet. He plugged in the aux cable, played it over the speakers, and we all just looked at him like, well, yeah. You can’t just sit on songs like that.
You can almost feel [the autumnal qualities of “October Skies”] physically in the track. Some of that, I feel like when we were recording it, just came in being absolutely comfortable with imperfection, whether it be little creaks or little scratches here and there. You can get into the song in a way that you used to in more classic records. Nowadays people try to clean all that stuff out. It’s all about nipping and tucking and maximizing stuff, whereas this was laid down onto a two-track tape. I think it really does the song justice. Not all of the tracks were done that way.
This was the test song [with producer Paul Epworth]. We knew we wanted to work with him, but even then, we just weren’t sure. Dynamically, it felt like a big decision. For lots of reasons, this felt like a super important album to really get right. […] We said, let’s go in for just a couple of hours, and see how it goes. Six hours later, we were halfway through this version of “Slip Away”, and we knew we were onto something. […] It gave us confidence. That was actually the end of last year, and we were like, right. 2018, we’re going to go make an album with that guy.
“Rose of Sharon”:
I felt that, from the word go, that this just had an energy to it that was very different than anything we’ve done before – fun, up, wholly positive. There’s this kind of dance love song nature to it. […] We were using this thing called a [Yamaha] DX7, which was this old ’80s synthesizer. It has a setting on it which we kind of messed around with, kind of like log drums, and that’s that weird cross-rhythm sound in it. […] I think it stands proudly on a slightly different dimension, and broadens the record.
There’s a guy called Garrett Miller, who’s a brilliant, lovely engineer in Nashville. He’s become a real enabler for Winston and Winston’s writing process. “Picture You” came out of that. I know that they were playing with a bunch of stuff, one of them being a classic Juno synthesizer. Win was messing around with Garrett doing some reverse chords. Actually, the chords are probably so simple, but have taken me months to try and figure out how to emulate. Win was throwing these pretty left-field sounds out of these writing sessions in Nashville. I remember being in California when he sent an email […] I put it on in the car and took a drive down Pacific Coast Highway. I was like, ok, this is pretty fresh. It’s different, but it’s not scary to us.
We were working on “Picture You” for a couple of days, and that rolled into an evening, late on one Friday night. We were still playing it in the room, and we had all the synths up, and everyone was jumping around on different things and experimenting. It kind of devolved into this – I hate the word “jam,” but just all of us improvising playing and vibing off of each other.
We got ourselves into this hypnotic state where were just riffing over a couple of chords out of the back of “Picture You”. We were stuck in the world; we didn’t stop, we didn’t talk. The lights were down, and it was 1 a.m. at this point, and we got to the end, to kind of a natural conclusion, having recording probably 30-40 minutes of music. Paul was like, that’s how we should finish it. That was what became “Darkness Visible.”
“If I Say”:
[“If I Say”] began its life as a somewhat intimate track, and grew in it epicness while we were recording it. When [arranger Sally Herbert] collaborated on it, it took on this whole other level which wasn’t necessarily there in our earlier iterations of it. […] She just found another gear of it. I remember when we got her first demo strings back, which she layers up herself at home […] it was like, wow. If this is her reaction… That’s what I love about any collaboration; kind of like a conversation, you hear someone’s response back to what you’ve said, and in a great conversation, that inspires another thought. That’s kind of what happened with “If I Say.” It pushed us further.
By this point, you’ve been through all the ups and downs and iterations of love, and sometimes love beyond just a romantic love. There’s love explored throughout these tracks about honor and brotherhood and family and different types of situations. I feel like “Wild Heart” really hit a chord with me. […] When we came to the actual studio moment, we recorded this song in 20 minutes. That was the first take, and we did it to tape, and we just laid it down. Winston didn’t even end up on the record on the actual song itself.
The first iteration of this song came from an evening in the back garage of Aaron Dessner from the National’s studio in Ditmas Park where we did a lot of the demos for Wilder Mind. […] We were literally in a garage, so we just turned it into a garage rock tune. We ended up with a recording of it that we loved, and got really attached to, and then we toured it like that for a couple of years.
Whilst we were touring it, we were recording Wilder Minds, and it didn’t quite fit on Wilder Minds. We couldn’t figure out why, so we started doing different versions of it. It went through every genre and tempo. Mental. We couldn’t believe it, but we couldn’t give up on it. […] When we got around to the songs for Delta, in the spirits of it being an album without limitations, “Forever” was on the table. It was towards the end of making Delta that it clicked. It’s basically just a song at the end of the day. It is what it is.
There was a longer version of the front section, and they ended up commingling as ideas, and it felt like all that wanted to be said got said in the opening statements concluding with “what’s beyond is beyond me.” That kind of tees up what’s almost an opening statement for what’s to come, rather than a conclusion. It tees up the future for us.