What do socks, chocolates and Mumford and Sons have in common? They’re all gifts that you buy when you have no idea what a person wants. They work for everyone: most people like ‘em and, if some folks don’t, at least their presents are inoffensive and re-giftable.
So let Christmas shopping commence! Last Tuesday, Mumford and Sons released their second album, Babel. In its first week, it’s on pace to sell 600,000 copies. He’s nearly doubled up Justin Bieber’s Believe, the heretofore biggest release in 2012.
Unsurprisingly, the album’s universally lambasted by the top tier of music critics who hold fast to that pretentious maxim of rock and roll: if it’s popular it sucks (they’re wrong; the album’s fine).1 This critic, however, is less concerned with condescending to the tastes of the masses and more curious why a Londoner and his Banjo have taken the English-speaking world by storm. I find five reasons in the dense Hopeless Wanderer, the track from the new album that seems to sum up the whole Mumford & Sons project. Watch it here:
1. Real, live music. Marcus Mumford uses no autotune. There’s no synthesizer, no Roland 808, not even an electric guitar. The music is made with actual vibrating wood and buzzing lips, trembling larynxes and yearning, beating hearts. From the moment the piano draws us in to the moment the horns blow us away, the band cuts through any filters between them and the audience. It’s live human beings playing to live human beings with nothing in between.
2. Intersubjectivity. That’s philosophy’s way of saying that these songs are meant to be sung on bended knee to the one you love so much it hurts, be it your ex-boyfriend, Jesus or Justin Bieber. Marcus begs and pleads and curses and forgives, frequently in the same line. There’s so much sentiment that you’re bound to identify with him somewhere.
3. Marcus Mumford’s voice. Not using autotune has a downside. Marcus’s vocals have been called a lot of things but pretty isn’t one of them. His passionate if pitchless rasp beckons us to sing along even if it’s just to drown him out. Between that and the simple melodies and the IDing with the lyrics, Marcus invite us to participate body and soul in his longings.
4. Spiritual, but not religious. And what’s he longing for? I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. Marcus opens the song by singing “You hear my voice/ I come out of the woods by choice.” Later on it’s “I will call you by name / I will share your road.” But wait. Whose voice? What road? Where are we going? It takes a songsmith as virtuosic as Mumford to make this bit of middle-school poetry seem at first glance profound. He’s not actually singing about anything–it’s vague image after vague image. And this is where my elitist colleagues fault Marcus Mumford. They call him insincere and manipulative.
But those critics miss the point. It’s not about Marcus telling us with Dylan-like detail how he and Jesus get on. Mumford & Sons make music that’s universal. The band can evoke those feelings at the core of our being–in this case, the desire to leave hopeless wandering and hold on to that person who is your center. It could be Jesus or your husband. It could be your daughter or Krishna. It could be Justin Beiber. But, no matter what it is that you want, Marcus captures the essence of longing. He names how we are driven by our deepest desires–a task frequently delegated to religion. Thing is, he uses words that don’t carry baggage.2 In this inviting way, he’s spiritual not religious.
5. Respect for the ineffable. You might not know what Marcus is singing about, but you can be damn sure he’s doing it reverently. He knows how to use strings and horns and accordions and that aforementioned throaty moan like The Boss used Clarence Clemons and his sax. As Springsteen could tell you, the solo can express the ineffable far better than the lyrics (especially those as cliched as Marcus’s: ‘so when your hope’s on fire, but you know your desire’? Come on, Marcus, even Neil Diamond could do better.). The banjo breakdown at 2:43 says all you need to know about desire.
I guess what I’m saying is pretty simple. People love Mumford & Sons because they invite us to dive deep into those yearnings at the core of our being. And that’s what makes this album a gift as versatile as socks and chocolates. People are always cold, hungry and full of desire.
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- Here’s Spin’s outright hostility, a comparison of Marcus Mumford to Tim Tebow (ouch!) and Pitchfork’s infamous review of 2009’s Sigh No More. ↩
- Yeah, I know he talks of sin and grace and the devil and all that. But look, those words are also without content–he could just as easily sing about hurts and gifts and villains except that they’re harder to rhyme. ↩