Mumford & Sons is kind of a big deal. I suspected that their upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl would fill up fast, so I cleared my schedule to buy tickets the moment they went on sale—only to find that the 18,000-seat venue had sold out instantly.
Mumford’s first album, Sigh No More, went multi-platinum and was nominated for six Grammys. When they released their second album, Babel, last week, sales reached 160,000 or so in the UK and 600,000 or so in the U.S.—in one week!
Why? Why is it that we can’t get enough of this band? Anyone who has listened to Mumford would have to agree that there is something compelling in what they are doing. But what is it?
Without a doubt, Mumford has a cool sound. Their instrumentation consists of everything nostalgic and folky—banjos, acoustic guitars, upright bases, horns, accordions, etc. And they use this instrumentation to great effect. The music would be impressive without lyrical accompaniment. Their songs gallop, swell, stomp, shout, and whisper (and I’m not referring to the vocals yet). Something in their song structure conveys a powerful attunement to human emotion. When you add Marcus Mumford’s vocals—lyrics aside—the mix is even more powerful. He ranges from quiet melodies to growling roars. And then his vocals are layered with those of his bandmates, sometimes softly harmonizing, sometimes whooping and shouting along.
But the instrumentation by itself cannot account for Mumford’s success.
I’ll never forget driving to comfort a family who had just lost their precious daughter/sister to a sudden accident. What answers can you give in such a situation? As I drove I heard—for the first time—Mumford & Sons sing:
“There will come a time, you’ll see
with no more tears
And love will not break your heart,
but dismiss your fears.”
The song is called “After the Storm,” and it’s absolutely breathtaking. What could be more powerful than singing about the uncertainty of death? Beyond that, what could be more powerful than exploring the Bible’s answer to this uncertainty: a time when healing will reign, when every tear will be wiped away, with no more pain or sorrow or sin or death?
This type of lyric is not unusual for Mumford. Their first album opened with the refrain:
“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
There is a design, an alignment, a cry of my heart to see
The beauty of love as it was made to be.”
They sing about kneeling before the King (“White Blank Page”), hoping in darkness to see the light (“Ghosts That We Knew”), forgiveness of sin (“Lovers’ Eyes”), weakness and the pull of the flesh (“Broken Crown”), eschatological healing and the banishment of sadness (“Not With Haste”), and on and on. They also seem to reference Jesus’ warning about putting your light under a basket (“Don’t hold a glass over the flame, don’t let your heart grow cold”) and sing about the tendency to wander in lyrics reminiscent of the hymn “Come Thou Fount” (both of these references come in the song “Hopeless Wanderer”).
Ultimately, I think Mumford’s appeal comes from their passion. It’s a combination of the passion in their music and the draw inherent in the themes they explore lyrically. Human beings wrestle with things like love, hope, death, life, and the like. And the Christian answers to these things are both profound and compelling. Mumford & Sons are not claiming to preach on these matters, but they are exploring them with passion and offering insights that often align with biblical truth. Just like The Welcome Wagon, their exploration of these issues and the biblical imagery in which they frame the questions and discover a few of the answers makes them appealing to a broad audience.
But here’s an important question: is Mumford & Sons a Christian band? Most Christians I know love them. Many Christians freak out (in a positive way) about their lyrics and make a big deal about the band’s faith.
“They have to be Christians! Listen to their lyrics!” That’s a statement I’ve heard a lot. But is it true? And would it matter if it wasn’t?
I’ll tackle those questions in tomorrow’s post.
Awesome. I’m going to have to explore more of their stuff now, I think. I’ve only heard a few of their songs (which I like) but have never been compelled to listen to any of their other songs.
On another note, I had never heard of The Welcome Wagon before reading that article a few weeks ago, but since then I can’t get enough of them and am looking forward to when they release another cd. So thanks for that! 🙂
Sweet! I’m glad you’re liking The Welcome Wagon!
Great stuff, Mark! I’m going to buy the album right now. Seriously.
I don’t have the best ear for music (probably because only one of mine works) but if what you said about their musical ingenuity is true, then I wonder if there is something deeply theological going on here. If God reveals Himself through Scripture (special revelation) and through creation (general revelation; Ps. 19), and if humans are the apex of creation (image of God; Gen 1-2), and if–please bear with the long sentence–you’re right about the uncanny musical ingenuity of Mumford and Sons, then could we say that God is revealing something about Himself through creation; namely, the instrumental genius of Mumford?
If so, then regardless of their lyrics or even their faith, their music itself could teach us about our Creator. Just thinking out loud; need to noodle it around a bit. But Rom 1:19-23 is compelling.
I completely agree, Preston. When people are using the creativity that God gave them, we are definitely seeing something about God being manifest in those people. Even if Mumford & Sons aren’t creating music AS CHRISTIANS (I’ll explore this tomorrow), they are nonetheless pointing to God, intentionally or otherwise.
Nice cliffhanger. I’m wondering if you will write about Marcus’ parents and their involvement as leaders of the Vineyard Church in the UK and Ireland? He seems to be pretty vocal in interviews about this latest album not being a statement about Christian faith. I love the music and find that I resonate with a lot of the lyrics. Maybe he and I had similar upbringings and experiences in and around churches. I don’t think we need to call it a “Christian band” because Marcus says he does not call himself a Christian. He also says he’s spiritual, but not religious http://www.bigissue.com/features/1488/mumford-sons-we-re-fans-faith-not-religion
It think he’s expressing deep emotions and spiritual struggles, and doesn’t feel the need or desire to explain those things in detail to the rest of us.
Amen, David. He’s been really honest in interviews about his faith, it’s just not as cut and dry as most Christians would like it to be.
I’m glad you brought this issue up because I do love their music (I had low expectations for this last album, but wow!) and because you are the most acclaimed Christian Hipster I know (Although, I thought hipsters stopped listening if it became too popular? A topic for another day) so who better than yourself to speak to such matters. But I have this conversation often with other Christians about whether they are in the family of God or not and my basic take is that they are comfortable with a Christian worldview, and the symbols that are contained within, so they express themselves through the language of that worldview and those symbols, like anyone else would with what they are familiar with. I feel the same way about J.K. Rowling and the HP books, I love them and they have echoes of the greatest story ever told but as with her, I don’t know if Mumford are Christians or not. I am however leery of rushing to the conclusion that they are, not because I want to assume the worst of people, but because Christians are so quick to claim anyone famous, and has anything resembling a profession of faith, as our own so as to make Jesus and Christianity appear cooler than it is. I don’t know about you Mark, but most of my ministry (at a church of 130) doesn’t feel cool or hip, and often times I don’t see much fruit from the small group of people I’m investing my life in. So the temptation is to latch onto anything that might be Christian and has mass appeal so as to validate what I believe and what I do. When all I have to do is read the Bible to know that the reality of the believers life is that their will be many tribulations in entering the kingdom, thats the norm, even though that is not very appealing to the masses or many Christians. Anyways, I’m rambling and I really do hope that Mumford knows the Lord, but for their own sake and their own joy, not to make me feel better about following Jesus. Look forward to your next article, miss ya bro.
I totally agree, man! So much of it is “speaking the language” of Christian themes and metaphors, and Christians do indeed get too easily worked up about this or that celebrity being Christian. I’ve never thought of it in the way you expressed, but I think you’re absolutely right that Christians want to feel successful by seeing successful people on our team. Well said.
And for the record, I am not even remotely hipster (which is a necessary statement for a hipster to make in such a situation).