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.