For some reason, in our culture of pop music, plugging or unplugging one’s guitar in is seen as a statement. Artists have been vilified if they plugged in at the wrong time or idolized if they unplugged and opened up. No genre is free of this phenomenon- consider these instances of unplugging: Springsteen was praised for recording parts of Nebraska in his bedroom, some people think Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set was better than any of their studio albums, and Yeezus got some of the best reviews of Kanye’s storied career even while his more mainstream fans pretend it doesn’t exist. Going electric has its own famous and infamous stories, the most notorious, of course, being Dylan getting booed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, after having been the standard-bearer for folk music since 1961.
Plugging in proved more than effective for the newest Tallest Man on Earth album, Dark Bird Is Home. The Tallest Man on Earth is the stage name of Kristian Matsson, a Swedish folk troubadour who burst on the scene in 2008 with his debut album, Shallow Grave, amidst a flurry of finger-picking and vocals endlessly compared to Dylan. He outdid himself in 2010 with The Wild Hunt, one of 2010’s best albums, building on the whimsy of the first into a consistently celebratory sound. 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now was disappointingly frail-sounding, but his distinctive voice remained a worthy listen. On all his albums, you felt you were receiving a privileged glimpse inside the mind of a recluse.
Calling what Matsson does on Dark Bird “plugging in” isn’t necessarily accurate, but it’s the same principle. He’s filled out his acoustic guitar with minimalist production in the past, most notably on Wild Hunt’s “Kids on the Run”. But he’s never been this committed to it. All the songs on Dark Bird feature some sort of production supporting Matsson’s guitar, whether it’s a backup choir, ethereal synths, or hi-hats, and some songs don’t have Matsson finger-picking at all. Counterintuitively, Dark Bird is Matsson’s most personal album, recorded in the wake of his divorce. I suppose that makes Dark Bird a breakup album, and the lyrics do suggest a previously unexplored depth of mournfulness characteristic of the classic breakup albums. It’s almost as if allowing himself room to work outside his guitar gave him the space to open himself up to us.
When Dylan plugged in, though, the results weren’t quite as well-received. In retrospect, we tend to see the folks at Newport as narrow-minded and stuck in the past, but that’s only because “Like a Rolling Stone” has the benefit of fifty years of being one of the greatest songs of all time. Maybe that’s a good sign for Mumford and Sons, whose newest album, Wilder Mind, marks their first move away from the banjo-inflected folk-rock they produced on their first two albums. Maybe with the benefit of hindsight fifty years from now, Mumford and Sons’ move away from folk rock will be seen as brave and revolutionary. Maybe we’ll hail Marcus Mumford as a genius for seeing the new direction rock music was heading. Maybe.
Then again, maybe not. Dylan had the benefit of still being Dylan, the greatest wordsmith of the rock and roll era. Marcus Mumford, while a good lyricist on Sigh No More and Babel, seems to have lost his flair for striking imagery with the move to generic rock and roll. Perhaps sounding like every other rock band was too time-consuming provide the music with above-average lyrics. Regardless of why Mumford decided their new style didn’t need anything better than “It’s in my blood, it’s in my water / You try to tame me, tame me from the start” or “And I rage and I rage / But perhaps I will come of age / And be ready for you”, this whole gambit probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, since the reason they found so much popularity in the first place was directly related to their banjo. No one was under the illusion that Mumford and Sons were cool, but they found a way to make the banjo cool, and that was enough for two albums worth of good songs. I understand not wanting to be defined by the folk movement they came to represent, but there’s something to be said for knowing your lane. If they’re too cool for their banjos now, they’re not good enough for me.
If Wilder Mind has an inverse, it’s Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell. While Stevens doesn’t exactly unplug, he strips his sound down considerably, especially after 2010’s Age of Adz, his last proper album and the most influenced by electronic music. The glitches and beep-boops of Age of Adz were in sharp contrast to his most famous album, 2005’s Illinois, a masterpiece of folk and indie pop. Stevens had the rare ability to shift dramatically from stark, emotional acoustic songs to triumphant, twee opuses without butchering the album’s effect as a whole. There were glimpses of Stevens at his most bare-boned in somber tracks like “Casimir Pulaski Day” or “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” or even on his Christmas EPs, which tend to treat the holiday’s hymns with reverence.
Nothing really prepared us for Carrie & Lowell though. Totally abandoning his more symphonically twee impulses, Carrie & Lowell is an album made up entirely of Sufjan’s voice and his guitar. His voice is often layered and given occasional harmonies, and he adds effects to his guitar throughout the course of the album, but it’s a naked album nonetheless. Written as he struggled to cope with his mother’s death and with his ensuing drug use and alcohol abuse, Carrie & Lowell bears none of Stevens’s past affectations and is better for it. You get the impression you’re finally getting the real Sufjan. There are several points on the album that have me near tears every time. It’s a small price to pay to experience such an intimate album.
In the future, all three of these albums will be seen as crucial transition points for these artists. None of them are as volatile as when Dylan played “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” at Newport in 1965 or perhaps as memorable as Nirvana covering David Bowie on MTV. But we live in a different time in which music doesn’t define our culture as prominently as it did even 20 years ago. We’re spread thinly over airwaves and gigabytes, and three folk artists diverging from their usual sound so drastically doesn’t capture the nation’s hearts and minds the way it used to. The unwritten rules about plugging or unplugging your guitar are muted, but very much still present.