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Review: Mumford and Sons Travel to ‘Johannesburg’ for a Little Eat, Pray, Banjo

SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: June 17, 2016
Label: Island/Universal

Let’s say you, as a longtime fan of Baaba Maal, looked up the polyglot Senegalese singer on Apple Music today. Why, you might have wondered, were all of his current top songs from an EP called Johannesburg that’s primarily attributed to Mumford & Sons? Why is Maal, 62-year-old fixture of West African music, hanging out with Marcus Mumford & Co., purveyors of fine British beard oil since 2009?

First of all, we should say, Maal invited them. He recruited Mumford banjoist Winston Marshall to play on the title track of his most recent album, 2015’s The Traveller. And Johannesburg is not Mumford and Sons’ first brush with African music (though it may well be their second): Back in 2014, actor Idris Elba put together a collaborative album inspired by his role as Nelson Mandela in a 2013 biopic. The Mumfords contributed a re-recorded version of their song “Home” (which began as soundtrack for a remake of Wuthering Heights, of all things) with additional vocals from South African singer Thandiswa Mazwai. Anyway, here we are with five tracks of Mumfords + Maal + Swedish-Malawian duo the Very Best + Cape Town trio Beatenberg.

Mercifully, there’s no banjo — the Sons of Johannesburg are the less folksy, more decidedly middle-of-the-road band that recorded last year’s tedious Wilder Mind. That doesn’t save them from falling into 100 percent of all their other tropes, like substituting frenzied, overlong crescendos with truly grandiose stadium rock. The first such passage comes a whole two-and-a-half minutes into opener “There Will Be Time,” with plinking piano filling in for their usual starring banjo. “Wona” attempts to lighten the mood at this painfully earnest party, but the only thing it’s got in the tank is a years-late Vampire Weekend joke. Beatenberg’s Matthew Field musters a good Ezra Koenig impression, lifting the frontman’s lilting style and even his carefully enunciated Ivy League vocabulary (“You don’t want to viv-i-sect your heart”). “Fool You’ve Landed” does a more convincing job of meshing the thickly harmonized Mumford sound with Afropop, but it doesn’t include any Maal, which would seem to defeat some of the point.

Thematically, Johannesburg is so wholesomely multicultural it sounds as though it could go head-to-head with “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” Shakira’s 2010 South African World Cup theme song. (Did you know “Waka Waka” had an actual South African group, Freshlyground, backing up its marquee international pop star? Strange, me neither.) The Mumfords, for their part, claim to have been so moved by the experience of their first South African tour that they felt the need to make an EP about it, which sounds like sudden-onset traveler’s psychosis, or perhaps a case of, “Damn, look at all these tickets we sold.”

Johannesburg seems like a product of noble intentions, but it also seems like a mission trip — those church-sponsored rites of passage that dispatch eager young believers to spread the gospel to destinations deemed insufficiently Christian. Mr. Mumford, 29, has put a bit of distance between himself and his religious background (his parents founded the U.K. branch of the Vineyard Church, an American evangelical megachurch), but his references have never exactly been subtle. It’s not every British folk-rock band that’s regularly covered by Catholic, Mormon, and Protestant news outlets alike, and you don’t have to speak fluent evangelical to “code switch” Mumford lyrics. Lines like, “So open up my eyes to a new light / I wandered ’round your darkened land all night / But I lift up my eyes to a new high” (from “There Will Be Time”) are an attempt — albeit a ham-fisted one — at an intercultural hymn.

The just-visiting mentality is why Johannesburg is an EP, not a full album, and why the Mumfords, the whole-wheat bread of popular music, feel no need to stray from their typical foundation of glossy, Western-style rock. Elder statesmen like Paul Simon and David Byrne understand that a smaller but exponentially more invested audience is a perk of committing to a niche. Right now, Mumford and Sons are unlikely to commit to anything past the next supporting tour. They’re not Bono, perpetually and loudly campaigning for the less fortunate; they’re not Serge Gainsbourg, subverting a racist French establishment with a reggae Marseillaise. They’re self-justifying, meekly sanctimonious tourists. Even the title Johannesburg feels like a souvenir, and a colonialist one at that.

If you, the passionate Baaba Maal fan, can make it through four mostly stilted tracks, there is a reward at the end: the soulful and atmospheric “Si Tu Vieux,” the only song that sees Maal with a solo lead. Opening with a soaring vocalization, “Si Tu Vieux” is, in its own way, a humble invitation to worship. “If you want, you can come to my place,” Maal, the son of a muezzin, sings in French, the language of international diplomacy. “If you don’t want to, go to your place / And I will go to mine.” No one said he wasn’t a gracious host.