The Mumford debate

October 5, 2012

I’ve lost count of the number of articles either defending or assailing Mumford and Sons. I haven’t seen anything like it. I was introduced to their first album when it was initially released a couple years ago. I was at work and a fellow co-worker — a super enthusiastic evangelical from California — told me that I gotta hear this band. He played one of their songs and passionately described how the song was recalling the captivity of sin or something like that. I smiled, nodded, and said something generic like, “sounds pretty good.” I eventually listened on my own time and concluded that they were okay but nothing compelling. So, I wasn’t very impressed, and now I’ve enjoyed ruminating further on what in particular is not compelling.

Consider this quote from Mumford about songwriting:

I can’t write lyrics unless I really feel them and mean them, which can sometimes be quite frustrating — because if you’re not feeling much at the time, you’re stuck.

Umm. Let me first give some background to my criticism. I’ve been steeped in the classics of American folk and country for quite a while now. My CD tower (yes, I still buy CD’s) is full of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and the like. Why would I listen to Mumford when I can listen to “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”? This is where I agree with many of the critics of Mumford. The lyrics really do try too hard, and that by the way is my general complaint about the whole indie music scene. When Dolly Parton wrote her 70’s masterpieces (e.g., My Tennessee Mountain Home), she wasn’t groping for literary allusions. She was describing her world, painting a picture with words — not unlike Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. None of these earlier figures were trying to be philosophers or even poets really. They were mediums, storytellers, communicators — and the clearer the better. They wanted to bring comfort in all areas of life, both the highs and the lows. They were neither tragic nor idealist. They didn’t write songs about needing to accept their weakness; rather, they were weak, pure and simple, nothing to fuss about. They didn’t need to take the next step of abstract speculation or emotional grappling about their weak status! I could say the same thing about nearly every theme that dominates the indie music culture, from which Mumford derives his sound and voice. Can you imagine Merle or Kris saying that he couldn’t write lyrics “unless I really feel them”?

Everyone who is looking for “the real” or authenticity, and think they have found it in Mumford, should dig a little deeper into the American music repertoire. We perfected the “real,” with the birth of country, rock, and blues. Actually, we should specify that the South did this because of all her sins. These great forms of music were born out of the cultural turmoil of a racist and segregated South. Something beautiful and powerful was born in the collision between whites and blacks struggling in the poverty (and shame) of Reconstruction. Here, the particular is what is being fought for and loved. The small things and common things were life-giving. Mumford tries to touch on this by making the common things his themes, but he just needs to bring himself down a little from his metaphysical heights. The world doesn’t need to be infused with meaning; it already bears it. No striving necessary.

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13 Responses to “The Mumford debate”

  1. danielimburgia said

    Glad to see someone giving Parton the credit she deserves. She is one of the greatest american songwiriters.

    “In my Tennessee mountain home
    Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh”

    obliged.

    • Oh yes, Dolly Parton is one of the great American songwriters. She’s still doing some impressive material, but nothing surpasses those albums, Coat of Many Colors (1971), My Tennessee Mountain Home (1973), and Jolene (1974).

  2. Madison said

    Reminds me of a critique of hymns that waste time asking God to help the singer feel worshipful, instead of just engaging in worship.

  3. Joel said

    I haven’t really taken the time to listen to Mumford and Sons except when other people are playing them. I actually like Sufjan and a few other indie artists, and I’d rather listen to indie than the stuff that dominates the charts today like bad autotuned R&B and fake-punkish-girl-pop. Still, I agree that indie is problematic and not really that great as a whole.

    My biggest critique is that it seems like a musical dead end (setting the lyrics aside for the moment). At its best, rock music had both a strong immediacy and openness to experimentation. Genres like blues and traditional folk have a combination of authenticity, a sense of tradition, and established forms that work. Jazz can combine both tradition and spontaneity.

    On the other hand, with a few exceptions, indie’s just seems rootless and aimless. A lot of them kind of noodle around without really doing anything interesting or memorable musically. Its heritage is in alt-rock, but they seem to lack what the older alt-rock bands had. And a lot of the singers sound either bored or like they’re trying too hard – sometimes both!

    • Very good insight, Joel. I think you’re right about the alt-rock roots, and particularly I would identify the “emo” movement of the late 90’s / early 00’s as inspiration for the so-called “sincerity” of the indie revolution. It all really makes me want to just play AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” with its unbounded exuberance!

  4. Cal said

    I understand your complaints. I’m still a Mumford fan (not anywhere close to diehard, I’ll listen to them on youtube or pandora occasionally) and I like all the Shakespearean allusions. I didn’t know he had to think so hard, I just thought he had a good Elizabethan education.

    As a side note, I find it funny how some folks react when they find out that Mumford is NOT a christian. How can he talk about rolling away stones, kneeling before the King, sowing seeds of love in our hearts etc. and not? Should be a wake up call: Christianity is not culture, Christianity is Christ. One can use the language of “christianized” 17th century England and be an agnostic or a pagan. Shows how blind we can be in this country!

    Anyway, I’d take any one of the Highwaymen over Mumford any day.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I’m not sure if Mumford claims or disclaims a “Christian” identity. Regardless, his charismatic evangelical upbringing is the source of his biblical motifs, and his privileged schooling is the source of his literary motifs. Neither of these motifs are problematic in themselves. I just think they’re free-floating specimens on his emotional landscape.

      This reminds me of an interview where he said that his work is “deliberately spiritual” but “deliberately not religious.” That’s precisely the problem! Religion is real and concrete. I don’t care about someone’s “spirituality.” So, yes, evangelicals are eating this up because they are the pioneers of “spiritual but not religious” gnosticism — our civil religion in this country.

  5. Robbie said

    Just curious, have you heard the Avett Brothers? They are pretty much local guys based out of Mount Pleasant, which isn’t too far from you in Charlotte. Just a little north of Concord on Hwy 49.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I’m actually from Concord (and still live in Concord/Kannapolis), which is where the Avett Brothers are from. They were raised here, and Scott owns a gallery here. Apparently they (or one of them) have also lived in Mount Pleasant, so both towns claim them. Though, normally Concord is named as the “based out of” town.

      So, yeah, I think everyone around here has heard of them. My parents have even heard of them! Yet, I’ve actually never been able to really get into their music. I respect it, and I don’t have any criticisms…the music itself has just never grabbed me. But, maybe I just need to spend more time with it.

      No doubt they are massively benefiting from this folk revival, and all the attention given to Mumford. I even saw the “Live and Die” video on VH1 a couple weeks ago.

  6. Joel said

    I was listening to a little Woody Guthrie recently – well, Country Joe MacDonald covering Woody Guthrie – and it made me think of this old post. “Real” folk music focuses on human experiences and a wide range of human emotions. Indie music in both its folky and more rocking varieties tends toward middle-of-the-road melancholy (not that melancholy is always bad, but you know) and really wants to be authentic and meaningful. And indie music often misses on both, while traditional folk manages to be both without trying too hard.

    And as simple as many of them are, traditional folk songs tend to have stronger melodic hooks than most indie music and more room for personal interpretation (speaking as an amateur cover musician).

    Of course, I am generalizing in broad strokes and there are exceptions.

    • Joel said

      But admittedly, traditional folk music has sometimes been guilty of trying too hard and overplaying its hand with narrowly topical protest songs.

  7. […] couple years ago, I offered some meager reflections on the debates surrounding Mumford & Sons. I sided with the negative critics. I still do, even […]

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