Mumford & Sons' have created a Tower of Babel
Brits' folk-rock sound and fury signifies nothing
Even if you're not a fan of Mumford & Sons, you've seen the video for the band's latest single, "Hopeless Wanderer." In it, comic actors Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman, Ed Helms, and Will Forte portray the band, decked out in the requisite vests and suspenders, as they cavort in a pastoral field and rock out, to comic effect, in a barn festooned with light bulbs and hay bales.
It's funny on a surface level, if you just like seeing Bateman wiping and tasting the tears from Forte's cheek, or watching two dudes make out. But the real humor comes from the way the video seems to both lampoon and embrace the band's excesses — its aching sincerity, its fetishization of acoustic instruments and Dust Bowl couture — by cranking them up to 11.
As with everything else connected to this British folk-rock quartet, the video, released in early August, has kicked up a dust storm of backlash. The only thing more popular than Mumford & Sons is hating Mumford & Sons, and the "Hopeless Wanderer" video only deepens the gulf between the band's devotees and its detractors.
To Mumford fans, the video is proof that the band has a sense of humor and is even brave, as Stereogum's Tom Breihan opines, for hiring actors "to make their whole thing look stupid in their own music video."
Critics, meanwhile, maintain that the band's awareness of its faults just proves its insincerity. Says one commenter on the website Tastefully Offensive: "I think the parody is accidental. The fact that the guys are acting so intensely earnest, which is supposed to be funny, actually parodies the fact that Mumford and Sons are a disingenuous hipster boy band ... They've admitted here that their own heavy handed earnestness is about as genuine as their interest in and respect for the traditional music they've butchered."
"How can you say that your truth is better than ours?" — "I Gave You All"
Sincerity, or the lack thereof, lies at the heart of the Mumford divide. Fans appreciate the hopeful cast of the band's lyrics as much as or more than the bucolic arrangements. The unbelievers, meanwhile, view the band as class tourists: well-to-do, middle-class young men "dressing up like Irish peasants to peddle earnest folk music to the masses," as Guitar Planet's David Hayter describes the popular perception.
Mumford admirers actually have the upper hand in this argument. While it's true that folk music places a higher premium on authenticity than other genres, it's also not meant to be exclusive. Front man Marcus Mumford makes no claim to the rabble-rousing mantle of Woody Guthrie, taking on greedy land barons and the like. Besides, carping about artists of one socioeconomic class co-opting the music of another is at best a sign of selective memory, and at worst blatant hypocrisy in a pop-culture universe that continually lionizes white guys from Elvis to Eminem for making black music safe for Walmart.
Most listeners don't care about the pedigree of the people making the music, as long as the music is good. And for millions of people, Mumford & Sons' brand of uplift — swaddled in biblical imagery, caked in the dirt and determination of the Joads trekking to California in The Grapes of Wrath — hits the spot. It's not difficult to envision lyrics like "The harvest left no food for you to eat" and "I know the shame in your defeat," from "The Cave," resonating with the huddled masses affected by the Great Recession. One can only imagine how many rousing renditions of that song's resolute chorus — "But I will hold on hope/And I won't let you choke/On the noose around your neck" — were played around virtual campfires in the tent cities of the Occupy movement.
Throw in melodies that are strong (most of the time) and clear, and instrumentation that feels rootsy and organic, and, well, what's not to like?
"Lend me your hand and we'll conquer them all/But lend me your heart and I'll just let you fall" — "Awake My Soul"
It's when one looks for substance beyond the Twitter-ready inspirational couplets that the wheels start to come off the Mumford wagon.
If the songs on 2009's Sigh No More and 2012's Babel conjure a sense of elevation, that's in no small part because everything is so, well, elevated. The more spirited numbers rush past like railroad cars clanging down the tracks, the soaring harmonies, guitars, banjos, Dobros, accordions, and strings whipping up a tornado of acoustic cacophony, while the slower ones are whisked along by the breathless urgency of Marcus Mumford's delivery. And all that bombast lends the facile lyrics a weightiness and sense of import they can't sustain on their own.
For all that they're intended to lighten listeners' burdens and bear them aloft on a current of hope and resolve, Mumford & Sons' songs are bogged down by tired images and lyrics that hint at affirmation and encouragement, but say very little. Peppered with literary references ("Little Lion Man," "The Cave") and snippets of Shakespeare ("Sigh No More," "Roll Away Your Stone") that make the smarter listeners feel cool while offering no actual insight, they create the illusion of depth, applied with the same broad brush strokes as the wall of rustic sound.
It all sounds designed to press the right buttons, to appeal to the widest possible swath of humanity by virtue of its intentional haziness. Either that, or portentous lines like "In the dark, I have no name," delivered with a ham-handed attempt at spiritual yearning, are really Marcus Mumford's idea of genuine artistic expression.
It's hard to know which is worse, but in either case, the results are dispiriting.
In these times of joblessness, terrorism, and political blood feuds, we can all use a few ardent hymns to the joys of surviving austere circumstances and finding hope in the darkness. But for all their passionate lip service to faith and perseverance, Mumford & Sons leave those of us looking for more unfulfilled, like hopeless wanderers: set adrift, devoid of the inspiration we were promised.