Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On the Explicit Nature of Mumford and Sons

I've struggled to come to terms with Mumford and Sons. I feel like I should like them, and at times I do like them, but I just can't embrace them as a band that I intentionally listen to. I'm not entirely sure why, but I think I know at least one of the reasons:

They are too explicit.

The cornerstone of anything whose currency is words is truth telling. Even in fiction. Of course when it comes to words, there are different ways of stringing them together depending on the form you want to create. Poems, essays, novels, letters, journalistic articles, bus timetables all have different ways of telling a truth. When it comes to writing a song, its form most resembles the poetic or the narrative form. In fact a song is basically a poem or a story with a melody. And because this is the form of a song, the best songwriters learn to master this form. They tell a truth, but they tell it in this form.

Rhyming can be part of this form, but just because your words rhyme it doesn't mean you are writing in the form, with the primary task now being to write good rhymes instead of bad ones. Good rhymes are an aid to the primary task of a song, but they are not the task. The task, in the words of Emily Dickonson, is to "tell all the truth but tell it slant". You approach your feeling, you approach your story, you approach your philosophy or theology, but you approach from a different angle, and you tell it from a different angle. You do not come right out and explicitly say,

In these bodies we will live, and in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life

(Incidentally, Awake My Soul is probably my favourite song on the album)

This gives me, the listener, very little work to do. It gives me very little scope for imagination. The songs bears all in just two lines, and there is nowhere else for it (or me) to go. It is naked. It is explicit. I'm reminded of Orson Welles's philosophy for the creation of a scene -- which I think ought to be true, mutatis muntandis, for the creation of a song:

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.

I think the profound irony at work in the film and music business is that most of the films and concerts that attract the largest numbers of people are actually the least "social acts". These events are little more than filmmakers and bands spoon feeding an audience that hasn't been trained to think artistically and creatively, that hasn't been trained to bring something to the table. In fact the audience has been trained in the opposite - sit passively and receive/be gratified/be entertained. (And unfortunately, as in world so in church.)

Lumping Mumford and Sons in with some kind of soulless industry is harsh, but if you saw the kind of people who attended their show in Galway back in March then you would begin to ask some questions. Philistines, I tell you!

Of course the criticism I'm leveling at Mumford and Sons could probably be leveled at any number of artists that I regularly listen to, but as Linton Barwick says, "by God it's a useful hypocrisy".


  1. My sister, a trained religion teacher who attends mass every week and has two siblings who are theologically trained said to me last Friday, "I absolutely love that album but me and [husband] can't quite figure out where they are coming from with the lyrics."

    Either you are calling my sister stupid or you might have fallen down a theological rabbit hole and need to come back up to where the normals are. :)

  2. (As he attempts to squirm out of a corner)

    I think I perhaps share some of your sister's confusion, in the sense that I wonder about the "faith" of Mumford and Sons. Their lyrics are not without ambiguity. But, and this maybe is me being unnecessarily critical, I think their use of religious language especially is too explicit. I think early Iron and Wine does what Mumford are trying to do, but does it a lot better.

  3. Are you calling the Psalms crap too? Coz they're also pretty explicit with their religious language...:p

  4. Just to clear up any possible misunderstandings...

    Yes, I'm calling Kevin's sister stupid, and yes, I'm calling the Psalms crap.


  5. hi Dec,
    I don't think their lyrics are that bad, but his voice always reminds me of a Christian pirate singing at some type of hoedown....
    I'm not sure songwriting should be about telling the truth slant. Sometimes you've just got to go with the truth straight on, head first.

    But actually I was more wondering if you've read that book 'Out of Babylon' on your bookshelf yet? I nearly ordered it last night

  6. Perhaps, canalways. I guess I'm just scrambling for reasons for not liking a band that a bunch of people whose opinions I respect happen to like very much. I do maintain the priority of slanted truth telling (not to be confused with obscurity), though of course there is room for manoeuvre.

    Anyway, as for your real wonderings, I have read about 2/3rds of Out of Babylon. Pre-empting your next question, it is good, but I probably wouldn't buy it (I've borrowed it from my library). If you have a copy of The Prophetic Imagination then there's no point in also having Out of Babylon. 'Finally Comes the Poet', however, is a book that I think is well worth owning, especially if you're interested in the subject of preaching. One of the early chapters opens up a way of seeing the cross outside of the usual "mechanical" way, which I think is important in light of today's Love wins/Holy Love wins/Justice wins/God wins/Harper Collins wins discussion.

  7. Love Wins /Harper Collins wins/ News Corp/ Rupert Murdoch wins.

    Yeah, thanks Dec, that was my next question- I think I'll prob leave it. I'm sort of looking for a book that links urban farming/bread making/sustainability/art/songwriting/Jesus/the church (that isn't Colossians Remixed) - not so much into the preaching

  8. If it's any help to converting you, I just did a write-up on Mumford & Sons exploring the nature of "man's predicament" and the role of grace in their songs.

    Although I see your point about certain lyrics (particularly the one cited in "Awake My Soul"), on a whole I don't think M & Sons are overt or plain at all, and are not spoon-feeding a passive audience with messages or ideas. To me, M & Sons are calling their audience out to murky and unfamiliar waters, a tierra incognita to our culture - the dual realities of despair and its nemesis hope. Modern songs want little to do with either in the truest sense of their meaning. And they don't do this in a saccharine Christian-rocky way, but with complex and (as you noted) ambiguous spiritual and religious imagery. This imagery, if you're not looking for it or are not trained to see it, is, my guess is, not at all explicit for the average listener who projects their little problems and worries onto the ambiguity of the hopeful transition from darkness to light. They tap into the current of grace without knowing it - their internal soil plowed and watered and made ready for good seeds.

    That being said - I'm very happy to have joined your blog, and look forward to future insights!

  9. Thanks, Matthew. I like what you say, although I disagree that Mumford are an "enormous critical success". I would say that they are "just about a critical success", if Metacritic is to be believed as a reasonably accurate barometer.

    Your thoughts remind me of a little discussion I had with someone on the film The Way. I really liked what the person said about the film, but for me the film had very little of what she said it had!

    That said, I've been "converted" before, so maybe it will happen again with M&S. Knowing me, I'll probably start liking Mumford when it's no longer cool to do so.

    I hate myself.