Coming To Terms With Mumford & Sons
I began looking for music when I was fourteen. I spent two years listening to Taylor Swift because I rather liked the sound of an acoustic guitar and really heartfelt, cookie-cutter emotions I could project on to my own life. But I got bored eventually. Miss Swift released her album Red which didn’t have much acoustic guitar. And the emotions were not as heartfelt. And there was not much left for me to project. Coincidentally, her new unabashed pop album won big at the Grammy’s and I like it. In a way.
So there I was. Young, lonely and without any real type of music to call my own. Most people my age where I grew up spent their time listening to this new wave of hip-hop/pop/R&B which I didn’t really get. Eminem was okay. Coldplay was okay too. But I wouldn’t have called myself a fan.
And then, like lightning from a clear sky, like sunshine on a rainy day, like any other weather based simile I’m not really able to remember as of now, along came Mumford & Sons.
Why I fell in love with Mumford & Sons becomes very clear very quickly. I liked acoustic guitar and I liked cookie-cutter emotions. And M&S offered that to me in a big way. Added to that was the fact that I was really full of myself back then so I thought their lyrics were profound reflections on life and faith. In addition to that, I thought I was drawing on this huge counterculture well of folk music and social messages and things like that. I got myself a lot of Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris and Joan Baez. But beneath all that fluff, I just really liked their music. The slow buildup. The explosive choruses. The unsophisticated and excessive banjo-bashing. The kick-drum. I loved every last minute of it.
There’s this section in Roll Away Your Stone where after one of those explosive choruses there is dead silence save for some initially quiet 3/4th drum beats that just rise in intensity until the song soars into this strange waltz-verse that begins with, of all things
“ Stars hide your fires
These here are my desires
And I will give them up to you this time around
And so I’ll be found
With my stake stuck in this ground
Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul”
And all of that worked. I think that was one of the first times music ever gave me the chills.
See if it works for you too. But you might have to set aside some deep rooted prejudices that this band just might deserve.
But let’s get to that later.
I memorized every word of every line of their debut album Sigh No More and then got their sophomore album Babel and burned through that as well. There was a time, maybe six months or so, when Mumford & Sons was all I ever listened to. Nothing else. All those Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits volumes I had lying around picked up the dust. I listened to a little Laura Marling every once in a while when I needed something a little quieter but it was always Mumford & Sons.
There comes a point when we begin judging music based on how cool it is. Nobody I knew ever listened to Mumford & Sons so I was confident in the knowledge that they were super cool. They were one of the greatest bands ever. Their lyrics were more profound than anything else I had ever heard.
Then came my tryst with reading music reviews. Sigh No More had mostly positive reviews. Babel was almost universally panned. Or, to be more precise, shelved very deeply into the ‘mediocre’ section. And I was outraged, as any good fan should be. Didn’t these writers get it? Didn’t they understand just how powerful this stuff was? How good it made you feel?
And then I grew up.
I understood the criticism. Behind the wall of banjo and deliciously thick acoustic guitar there was nothing more than a pop band. Verse-chorus-verse structures abounded. All their songs had a very similar buildup and wind-down. Almost all their songs had the words heart and hand in them. The songwriting was about as cookie-cutter and accessible as any other pop outfit, only far more grandiose with the constant references to literature and scripture.
Then there was something else. Something that trumped all that. They weren’t cool anymore. Everybody knew about Mumford & Sons. And almost everybody hated them. Their lyrics didn’t feel as profound anymore. They just felt big and empty. I began scrutinizing their musicianship and like most major music publications of the time, found it lacking.
Slowly and piece-by-piece, I fell out of love with Mumford & Sons.
I listened to a lot of cool music. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City became a favourite of mine. I still love that record, by the way. Even more than his excellent To Pimp A Butterfly. I listened to Coeur De Pirate. I listened to Stromae. I finished listening to Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits and picked out around twelve of those songs which I loved listening to.
In many ways, this period was very good for me. It made me realize that I didn’t really want to listen to a lot of cool music. It was good the next day when I talked with my music pundit friends about which part of Valley of the Shadows I liked the most. But it was hard falling asleep to that stuff. It was hard sitting in trains listening to rhythmic beeps and boops as the landscape sped past me.
So I listened to The Avett Brothers. I listened to The Punch Brothers. I listened to Iron and Wine. I listened to CHVRCHES.
After a month of seeking substitutes to fill the ever growing hole in my heart, I was finally forced to come to terms with something I had been running away from for a little over a year. That hole was banjo shaped.
So, full of shame and remorse, I waded back into the depths of my Walkman MP3 player until I found the little folder where I had put my favourite M&S songs.
I went out for a walk.
I hit play.
And in the course of an hour and a half, that hole was slowly filled. I recognized Mumford & Sons for what it was. But this time, I revelled in it. I revelled in its cheesy, earnest bombast. I fell back in love with that solid double-bass rumbling in the background. The subtlety of the piano keys. The violin. The way they compensated for not having drums.
I felt more chills in that hour and a half than I ever felt throughout my cool music phase.
And I walked back home, happy and satisfied.
Their third album came out last year and by then I was used to the drill. Everybody hated it. And I unabashedly loved it.
It was loud and nowhere near as sophisticated as it tried to be and the lyrics were as earnest and bombastic as ever and I loved every bit of it.
Where I grew up, a story wasn’t worth it if there was no moral at the end. So what’s the moral here? Critics are often right. There is something disingenuous about four British, private school educated twenty-somethings dressed like this:
And I think they sort of got that as well. Now they’re dressed like this:
So here’s the moral:
Music transcends coolness. If Vivaldi fills the hole in your heart, listen to Vivaldi. But if Billy Ray Cyrus really fills that hole, no amount of Vivaldi can change that. Snobs are going to tell you that the music you listen to isn’t as awesome as the music they listen to. And they might probably be right. But listen to it anyway.
Because music transcends social status. The music you love is the music that comes to your mind when you fight with someone you love. The music that comes to mind when you lose a job. The music you listen to to get some sleep.
In my case, that music happened to be Mumford & Sons. And slowly, over a period of four years and an unholy amount of iTunes purchases, I came to terms with that.