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The Poetic Spirituality of ‘Mumford & Sons’

The Poetic Spirituality of ‘Mumford & Sons’

Guus Krol

Kathryn from 'Through a Glass Brightly' - published on 11/19/13 - updated on 06/08/17

Their precise faith commitments are not exactly clear, but their music has made the Catholic faith real to me in a profound way.

After I wrote about Arcade Fire, I found a music video for a few of their new songs which appeared on Saturday Night Live. It's loaded with celebrity cameos, including Bono from U2, the band to which Arcade Fire is most often compared.  In the middle of the first song ("Here Comes the Night," probably my favorite from Reflektor), there's a joke at the expense of Mumford & Sons.

I'm not surprised by it, as it exemplifies my point about the two bands occupying opposite positions in the hipster gamut. But aside from a couple of funny parts, this music video is just too weird for me and even a bit nightmarish. It reminds me of why I never watched other Arcade Fire music videos and never really wanted to see them in concert. I love a lot of their music, but I prefer to enjoy it far away from the visual interpretations that often have been associated with it. I haven't faced that tension in Mumford & Sons; and what I aim to do in this article is to defend Marcus and his friends against those who hate them. Here is an article from First Things titled "Against Mumford" that got me all worked up. Be sure to read the comments, too, a few of which I found particularly satisfying.    

I heard a little snippet of "Little Lion Man" one fall day in 2010 and promptly rushed to my computer to find more of that sound. The first song I clicked on transported me to a place that can best be described as wedding feast celebrating a marriage between my senses and my nostalgia. I had chosen "Sigh No More" – the title track for Mumford & Sons' first album, because I immediately recognized the words of Shakespeare's poem by the same title which is often used in film and theater adaptations of his comedies. As I heard these four male voices singing together, I felt transported into their world—their shared friendship represented by the words carefully shared by all, and also their individual hearts suggested by the different voices. Then I realized that the loveliness of the lyrics reflected the swelling in my soul:

Serve God, love me and mend
This is not the end
Lived unbruised, we are friends
And I'm sorry
I'm sorry

Sigh no more, no more
One foot in sea, one on shore
My heart was never pure
You know me
You know me

Yes, I know you, whoever you are, I thought; and you seem to know me. How did you manage that? The experience was just as John Waters describes in his talk:

"What? What is that? What is that? […] Who is this guy with this voice? This strange voice, this ethereal voice, who seems to know something about me? Who seems to know what I want? Who seems to know what appeals to me. The song seemed to promise some world some place that I’d only dreamed about."

I felt like I was listening to the friendship shared between C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the other "Inklings" set to music. I felt like the Four Evangelists were soothing me to a peaceful rest, telling me all together but each in their own unique way that I must serve God, adding that it will be difficult, I will screw it up sometimes, yet I need not dwell in sadness: 

But man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing

Then, as the song picks up in tempo, my heart rose with it and my reaction was not unlike that of the Emotional Baby. These four men (probably from the Shire, I imagined) were singing about love, and the love they described was real love, Love Himself—the love that moves the sun and the other stars. Unlike millions of songwriters before them, these men knew that

Love; it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be

I was utterly enraptured by this song, and it is because of that fact that I take issue with the author of "Against Mumford." He says that their "tradition" is invented and inauthentic, just an eclectic mishmash. Well Jimmy crack corn and I don't care. It is moving to me and millions of other people. It touches on something real, plugging me into the "Deep Magic" described in The Chronicles of Narnia. It might not be firmly rooted in a musical tradition, but it is in a religious and literary one.

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That's what enlivens me. So many beautiful things that I've read and forgotten about return to the forefront of my mind and heart when I hear some of these songs. I wished that it had been released a few years earlier so that I could have blared it for my high school students when we came across references to love in the New Testament which served as a stumbling block to them in their painful life (and music) experience. Some of them seemed cynical and unmoved when St. Paul told them "Love never fails" (1Cor 13:8) but perhaps they might give that idea another chance if they heard it being proclaimed here and now from a drum, a guitar, a piano, and a banjo at full voice. Mumford & Sons has managed to make St. Paul sing to an enormous amount of people.

This, I believe, is what we all have to thank them for: they preach to the masses, as the NPR article said. Of course they are no substitute for actual confessions of faith or liturgical worship; but they can complement those things. I know as well as anyone else who has carefully studied their lyrics or read their sometimes troubling interviews that they aren't perfect and they have plenty of growing to do (just like the rest of us); but their music is like a corporal work of mercy in a world filled with seriously offensive forms of artistic expression. 

The next song I heard was "The Cave". I sent it to my brother and he said, "If that song were a woman, I would marry her." From that moment on, I knew I wanted to go with him to a concert. I had never been to a live rock 'n' roll show in my life except for catching a bit of Hootie & the Blowfish when I was a kid. Mumford & Sons reminded me of them – of those very long road trips to visit our extended family each summer. It's the kind of music all five of us could agree to. Hootie colored my childhood with my family by way of heart-filled sounds and words; and I could feel Mumford taking that place in my early adulthood. I really think that nostalgia plays a large role in my enthusiasm for this band. But whereas Hootie mentions crying in almost every one of his songs, Mumford sings of kneeling. I was kneeling the first time I really heard the priest say, "Behold the Lamb of God." I was kneeling when my husband proposed to me. I was kneeling right before I wrote this post and prayed that I would produce something worthwhile. When my brother and I were finally surrounded by thousands of others Mumford & Sons fans who were jumping for joy as they sang about kneeling, I felt very grateful that this band had managed to pull together this crowd in such a way, and that we all at that moment agreed that forgiveness and joy and friendship were what we were cheering for.

I am not naive about the fact that some people surrender themselves to music and wind up very lost, quite apart from a stable community of love searching for God. With the use of drugs or just highly stimulated baser passions, some rock 'n' roll fans whip themselves up into a frenzy of self-indulgence. Pope Benedict identified this problem, and it is his comments on the subject (see bottom of page 9) that inspired the Irish journalist John Waters to build an exposition (the subject of his lecture recommended as a companion to these two posts) in order to say to his beloved pope, 'Yes, rock 'n' roll culture can lead people astray; but it doesn't have to. There is more going on.' He talks at length about the so-called "27 Club" which includes all of the musicians who died at that young age, often as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. He suggests that the real cause of their death is that they misunderstand their own desire. Fans, too, are at risk of this same disordered seeking, and so they must be discerning: Does this music – this particular song – feed love? Is it real love? Is it love that will not betray, dismay, or enslave me? If not, skip it.

Mumford & Sons is criticized for a hundred things and I feel like I've heard it all. Some people just can't stand the banjo. Some people are annoyed by their constructed back-country image and their lack of literal sons. Some boycott them for using the F-word a few times and for saying some strange things about Christian identity. Regarding their sincerity, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Regarding their faith commitments, I'll just say they seem spottily catechized and unsatisfied with the version of Christianity that has been presented to them. As I claimed about the members of Arcade Fire, I think they have a very sacramental world view that wants proper ordering. I wish I could be their Apologetics teacher. I have a great affection for these guys. I see them as very childlike – filled with humility, wonder, and joy; and I hear in them a deep and lasting yarrah (which I described in my previous post) which is almost perfectly illustrated by that laughing, aching "harrr" sound that they so often make when no other sound will do.

If you watch the lecture from Mr. Waters to the very end, you'll hear him discuss Mumford & Sons. He says that after he heard their first album, he thought they were "this new thing" in which the art is informed by the nitty-gritty of everyday life while contemplating great transcendent truths in a Chestertonian way. He was really disappointed in their second album, however. (I thought the piece in the Atlantic captured the problems with it quite well.) But, wisely, Waters isn't ready to dismiss them yet. He says, "The fact that they were there—that that flame flickered for a little while—tells me that it still could happen." He adds that it's "harder and harder because the culture of misunderstanding gets in the way."

I really like most of the new album, but I did notice something off about it. I think that the culture in which they and their fans find themselves did get in the way for them. Instead of playing for God in their midst when two or three (or four in this case) of them were gathered, they played too much for their fans and for their fame. It is like C.S. Lewis said: "Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you get neither." But I join in Waters's hope that it can happen again. And I found that the live show which mixed both albums was brilliantly done. I had the same sensation that I had when I first met them in "Sigh No More." They peacefully, graciously invited me back into their joyful world with "Lover's Eyes," and I soon began to anticipate each song, calling them out to my brother before they started playing again. That familial sense came back to me: I remembered happy times with my parents and brothers; and I imagined myself with the Inklings sharing laughs and pints at The Eagle and Child. I celebrated it heartily.

Keep reading on the next page

Perhaps this hilarious parody video of "Hopeless Wanderer" (which the band commissioned in order to make light of themselves, by the way) may help endear them to you. If that doesn't work and you just can't bring yourself to like them, please don't ruin it for any of their fans by making them feel stupid or uncultured. You don't want to wind up like these hipsters discussing their playlists, do you? And to those of you who are already fans, I recommend watching the documentary Big Easy Express, including the deleted scenes which contain some of the finest moments. 

I see both of these bands serving as modern day poets who shake us loose from complacency. I believe Mumford & Sons has some great answers for Arcade Fire and lovely reminders for many of us (perhaps as a Brideshead Revisited to a Great Gatsby as I suggest in my earlier two posts); but they still have a long way to go. They're only in their twenties, after all, and their hearts are at least beating very hard indeed. If they keep seeking, acknowledging their weakness, asking for forgiveness, and calling out things like "awake my soul," I trust they will do much more good than harm with their fame. 

One of the newest Arcade Fire songs (the one I mentioned at the top) asks the question, "If there's no music up in heaven then what's it for?" I'll leave you with that. 

Originally published in the blog 'Through a Glass Brightly'.

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