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 dieWhere 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".