When I first read “Against Mumford” by Matthew Schmitz at First Thoughts, I wondered if we had listened to the same songs. Schmitz’s review of English folk-rock band Mumford and Sons’s second album “Babel” applauds the negativity of critics and belittles the praise of fans. His snarky critiques are unjust and lack an appreciation for the depth of their lyrical content and the wideness of their audience.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll state my position early on: I love Mumford and Sons’s music. I love their sound, I love their lyrics, and I love the way their music gets under my skin and into my soul. For people looking for real substance in music, this is an excellent band to listen to and truly enjoy. I also think conservatives have a lot to appreciate in Mumford’s art too, and I am intrigued by the men behind the mayhem.
I attended my first Mumford and Sons concert in August 2012, before the release of “Babel”; it was a sold-out event in which thousands of people stood on the lawn through three bands to hear the fourth play loudly into the night. There is no typical Mumford fan. I saw teenagers, twenty-somethings, parents with their kids, the hip, the prep, the jaded, and the older. People sang along, danced, hopped up and down, or swayed. For a concert, it certainly had an element of revival in it. There is something very beautiful about hearing thousands of people around you singing along to “It seems that all my bridges have been burnt/ But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works/ It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart/ But the welcome I receive with the re-start” with their arms in the air and a smile on their face.
But the sheer beauty and power of these kinds of lyrics does not seem to phase or impress Schmitz. He says,
“But Mumford does not demand any public or existential commitment from its listeners. It is the typical suburban song-spinning of popular music, but unlike that popular music it affects to be about something more. Mumford seems to be incapable of writing serious songs and unwilling to write ones that eschew bombast. …Mumford and Sons is a kind of musical Pintrest. They “collect” without really linking together a variety of quaint, beautiful, and touching things.”
If by not writing serious songs, he must be referring to songs with lyrics like these: “In these bodies we will live,/ In these bodies we will die,/ Where you invest your love/ You invest your life/ …You were made to meet your maker.” I can understand where he is coming from, though. With other popular musical artists like the ever philosophical Taylor Swift, who straight-up tells her listeners without ‘eschewing bombast’ that “Oooh, we called it off again last night/ But oooh, this time, I’m telling you, I’m telling you,/ We are never, ever, ever getting back together” and Rihanna’s more poetical “You’re a shooting star I see/ A vision of ecstasy/ When you hold me, I’m alive/ We’re like diamonds in the sky.”
And what of demanding any public commitment from its listeners? Do we here at The Imaginative Conservative demand that all our readers be conservatives or have an imagination? Certainly not. And for that matter, what secular music group anywhere demands public commitment of some sort? It leaves one feeling nauseated that good music cannot be appreciated without a loyalty stamp of approval. Schmitz also needed to do his homework before this piece was published. He writes, “We don’t know if they’re Christian (or indeed if they have any existential commitment), or if they’re just aesthetic reactionaries of a limited type. Eclecticism precludes evangelism.”
This begins a tricky and touchy subject between band mates. In a June 2011 interview with the band, Josh Eells of Rolling Stones wrote
“Listening to Mumford & Sons’ songs, it’s hard not to detect a vaguely spiritual undercurrent. The lyrics – in addition to high-literary allusions to Shakespeare and Steinbeck (Mumford, after all, is a guy who reads 16th-century English historical fiction for fun) – are also full of references to faith, sin and atonement, not to mention explicit exhortations to “serve God” and profound queries like “Can you kneel before the King and say, ‘I’m clean, I’m clean’?” Coupled with the band’s harmonies and a propulsive beat, they can almost sound more like Christian praise songs than modern-rock hits.”
According to Lovett, a committed nonbeliever, Mumford’s religion made things tricky. “It was always a bit of a stumbling block for our friendship,” he says. “I don’t know if Marcus would see it like that – we were still great friends who played music together. But whenever that stuff would come up . . .”
The band publicly says the band is not Christian as all band mates are not believers, or religious for that matter.
Mumford grew up a preacher’s kid, and so it’s natural to presume that the new album’s title, Babel, takes on a certain biblical relevance. But the idea is far wider. “There are matters of the heart and sort of spiritual considerations that most humans have — explorative, really,” Mumford says. “We’re inspired by such a range of things between the four of us — almost every genre of music has been embraced by one of us at some time, and just about anything can inspire a song.”
Schmitz’s final attack was suggested a clever ploy:
“The whole problem is well represented by their name, “Mumford and Sons.” It suggests history, tradition, the passing down of something real–above all, the transmission of blood. But Marcus Mumford is not in a band with his sons; in fact, he has no sons at all.”
To that, I have to say “yet.” Marcus Mumford is barely older than me at age 25 and married his childhood sweetheart last year, actress Carey Mulligan. The two met through church and were pen pals as children, before re-connecting after both had established themselves in public careers.
But to continue to the album: it is magnificent. It is not, however, an album which can be picked apart. Listening to one or two songs may be pleasant, but the music is best appreciated when listened to in order. The reason this music is beautiful is not just the instrumentals, or the voices – it is the words. The songs remind me of a prayer journal, which is the power behind Mumford’s publicity. They may deny and deny again, like Peter before the cock crows, but the spirituality in these songs touch people in a way Christian-specific art has not lately affected the culture.
On personal speculation, I think it is the band’s success is viscerally coming at odds with personal beliefs, which is causing the band to take a break for a while. How can you sing about being a “lover of the light” and say “‘Cause I know my weakness, know my voice,/ And I’ll believe in grace and choice/ And I know perhaps my heart is farce,/ But I’ll be born without a mask” and say that these words are just words?
Some people do not like the repetition of the lyrics; these, again, remind me of prayer. The way we repeat the words over and over again (in, say, the Jesus prayer) so as to make it less about the words we say to God and more about our deepest need for communion with God. Mumford tells us, “But I’ll still believe though there’s cracks you’ll see,/ When I’m on my knees I’ll still believe,/ And when I’ve hit the ground, neither lost nor found,/ If you’ll believe in me I’ll still believe.”
The songs cover marriage proposals, regret, death, faith, hope, love, the search for contentment and the roads we all travel on in this life. The lyrics do not shy away from the hardships of life – the way sin entices us, the way life hands us hardships, the hope that we cling to when there is seemingly no hope. In “Hopeless Wanderer” he sings, “I wrestled long with my youth/ We tried so hard to live in the truth/ But do not tell me all is fine/ When I lose my head, I lose my spine.” He goes on to sing how he “will learn to love the skies he is under.”
There are bad words and divine inspiration; there is humility and a lot of mandolin playing. Mumford & Sons remind me of virtuous pagans who speak truth and see light, though they do not attribute it correctly. And though a few members of the band were raised Christians, I have high hopes and heavy prayers that they will return to the Church with a flourish. Their art is too important to be foolish writings. Their music touches souls and digs deep; it is not just the study of poetry and a wide range of literature. Human nature can not be known as much as it can be felt.
Mumford & Sons are musicians, not theologians, but this does not mean they cannot reach upwards in explaining the Word in action. Mumford sings, “Spare my sins for the ark/ I was too slow to depart/ I’m a cad but I’m not a fraud/ I’d set out to serve the Lord.”
The other members of the band especially deny religious significance, but one listen to this album speaks much louder. I will wait for your next album, Marcus Mumford!
“And I came home/ Like a stone/ And I fell heavy into your arms/ These days of darkness/ Which we’ve known/ Will blow away with this new sun/ And I’ll kneel down/ Wait for now/ And I’ll kneel down/ Know my ground/ And I will wait, I will wait for you.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.