When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough, and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
And they really, really fall apart when they need to classify classical music.
What makes an album essential? What makes it awful? What makes it merely okay—in a good sense or bad? Some music critics can talk themselves into a nervous breakdown trying to answer these questions. Some bands, confidence caught in the creative crossfire, can do exactly the same.
Confronted with changing public tastes and a wave of watered-down soundalikes, Mumford and Sons has avoided this trap. But in doing so, the band has done the unthinkable. Unfortunately, the more you think about it, worse this news becomes.With “Wilder Mind,” Mumford and Sons have scrapped their old sound; but bands have scrapped their old sound before. The new sound they’ve embraced (in the care of that dude from The National) is moderately moody, moderately heavy, moderately portentous, and moderately pop. But bands have done that before, too. In a plain and calculated way, Mumford has turned in a record that’s more mainstream, but less significant, than their earlier work—following, again, in a not-so-proud tradition.
One of my favorite hymns: