Mumford and Sons: Babel

Mumford and Sons are ready when you want to get serious. You can bop along to your bubble gum pop like “Call Me Maybe” and your international dance fads like “Gangnam Style.” You can listen ironically to your hipster bands like Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, and Fun. You can shake it to your dance divas like Katy and Pink and Gaga. But when you’re ready to explore the innermost longings of the human heart, Mumford and Sons will be waiting.

Indeed, the song that has been on the charts in the U.S. this autumn is called “I Will Wait,” and patience has paid off for Mumford and Sons. If anyone doubted in an era of electronica and four-on-the-floor dance beats that an acoustic folk band with a name that sounds like an old dry goods store could break into the charts, the last year has proven them wrong. Their first album skyrocketed to success in the U.S. a year after its release on the strength of their performance at the 2011 Grammy’s, where they combined with the Avett Brothers and Bob Dylan for a joyous musical romp.

Led by their songwriter, guitar player, and kick-drummer Marcus Mumford, their songs wail and rage with the passion of youth. Finding out that Mumford’s parents were the missionary founders of the Vineyard Church in the U.K.—the first outside North America—explains a lot. Mumford and Sons is one generation removed from the Jesus People. They’re full of the same passion for raw experience, the music and the charismatic shouting and hand waving, but with a less specific theology.

Christian Scharen wrote a good review of their last album, Sigh No More, pointing out references to scripture and Shakespeare that suggest Marcus Mumford may not have fled the evangelical fold. I’m not so convinced. There’s a lot of talk in the band’s songs about the frailty of human beings, about the need for grace and the struggle to love, but it seems divorced from a specific theology. Other reviewers have described Mumford and Sons as writing spiritual songs for a post-Christian age, and that seems about right to me.

In the rip-roaring opening song, “Babel,” Mumford sings,

I cry, Babel, Babel look at me now
Through the walls of my town, they come crumbling down

Mumford uses a Jericho-like “walls come tumbling down” metaphor for baring one’s soul and being open to love, rejection, or sorrow.

The second song, “Whispers in the Dark,” suggests an appeal to someone who has pulled away from love.

But fingers tap into what you were once
And I’m worried that I blew my only chance

The third song “I Will Wait,” suggests loyalty and constancy, an unwillingness to give up on someone. It ends with a positively charismatic (in the spirit-filled religious sense) suggestion of supplication:

I’ll kneel down know my ground
Raise my hands, paint my spirit gold
Bow my head, keep my heart slow
‘Cause I will wait, I will wait for you  

Mumford and Sons at the 2011 Grammy Awards in a performance that launched their mainstream success in the U.S.

Anyone who’s been to a charismatic Christian service will be familiar with the format of this album. Rejecting the traditional prelude and call to worship, services usually start with a set of “praise and prayer” music–uplifting contemporary religious songs that get the Spirit moving and the congregation swaying. The choice to open with three “up” songs on Babel that sing of openness and grace, loss and forgiveness, and hope and longing, set up themes that appear through the rest of the album. Furthermore, the relationships between rhythms and keys within the songs bring a sense of connection to each track that makes listening to the whole album as satisfying journey.

The classic Mumford and Sons song starts quieter and slower, and ramps up by means of tempo and metric modulation to a full-throated, banjo-ringing, harmonizing roar. Several of the songs do this enjoyably, like “Lover of the Light” and “Hopeless Wanderer.” But some of the tunes, like “Ghosts that We Knew” and “Reminder” allow the listener to bask a bit in quiet, subtle orchestrations combining guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and pedal steel guitar. Use of the horn line in “I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light,” and “Broken Crown” give a sense of a band busking on a London street corner, and the judicious use of brass is one of the successful carryovers from the previous album (check out “Winter Winds” on Sigh No More.)

The song lyrics suffer from what I’ll call the Direct Address problem. This is a trap my favorite band, U2, and specifically Bono, have fallen into as well. Nearly every song is constructed as “Me” telling “You” something incredibly deep and important. This gives the suggestion of a conversation between two very passionate individuals. It also gets really old after about two songs.

Every single song on Babel is a Direct Address song. For that matter, every song on Sigh No More is also a Direct Address song. A band as creative as Mumford and Sons should experiment with writing songs from a variety of perspectives—a woman’s, a child’s, a raindrop’s, a cat’s, or a whole group of passionate people. Or just about things that happen, like shipwrecks or car wrecks or presidential elections. Or maybe even third-person folk ballads of the “Molly Malone,” “Barbara Allen” variety, something their quirky brethren The Decemberists seem to do well. What would a ballad about a beautiful or tragic character plucked from everyday life sound like today?

She texted her fellow,
‘Bout a bistro called ‘Yellow’
Where they have cockles and mussels,
Alive, Alive, Oh…

But what’s most remarkable about Mumford and Sons is not so much the lyrics as the instrumentation and harmonies, the duple and triple rhythms piling on top of each other to create a sense of passion that grows and swells with each song. And perhaps it is a miracle of God—a non-specific, postmodern sort of God—that a band with such a deliciously strummy sound and such genuine musicianship can break through in an overproduced, auto-tuned musical age.