Everyone’s favorite British folk band, Mumford and Sons, and their latest album, Babel, have been a hot news item since the album was released a couple of weeks ago. Depending on who you ask, the band’s music is heartfelt and refreshing, beautifully expressing the human desire for love and grace or maudlin and mediocre, only created to prey on the sentimentality of the general population. Two recent articles on the band illustrate the variety of opinions that have been voiced about Babel and the obvious religious symbolism in the group’s music: the first, “Mumford & Sons Preaches to Masses”, from NPR’s Ann Powers (which DZ mentioned on Friday), speaks to the band’s power to bring religious ideas to the public; and the second, “Mumford & Sons and the Death of Church Music”, comes from The American Conservative’s Jordan Bloom, in a direct reply to Powers’ article, where he connects the vapid sentimentality he sees in contemporary worship music to Mumford and their music. Both of these articles are interesting reads, and they address what I see as the central theme of Mumford and Sons’ music: their incredible ability to introduce Christian and religious symbols to a large audience, imparting grace and hope to their listeners.
Similarly to their previous album, Sigh No More, this album takes a biblical idea/symbol as its title; however, Babel conjures up a different set of ideas regarding religion than the reference to heaven provided by the title of the band’s first album. With a title like Babel and its connotations of confusion, especially between different languages, I find it intriguing that so many reviews of and reactions to this album accuse it of pandering to the masses by creating a common musical language that is derived from calling up false emotions. Certainly, Mumford and Sons’ music is charged with emotion, often relying on contrasts between soft and loud and slow and fast to produce their particular brand of folk-inflected pop music, but questioning the emotional sincerity of their music based upon their ability to create emotionally resonant songs seems like a bizarre criticism. While the music on Babel doesn’t stray too far away from what we heard on Sigh No More, I have found little evidence of false sentimentality as I have listened to Babel over the past few weeks; instead, my reaction has been the opposite and I have found a measure of peace and grace in Babel, just as I did in Sigh No More.
This sense of rest and peace is most obviously evident on the album’s final two songs “Below My Feet” and “Not With Haste.” Beginning slowly before transforming into romping celebration, “Below My Feet” is buoyed by airy background vocals, giving a breathless ease to lead singer Marcus Mumford’s declaration of faith amid the struggles of life: “And I was still, but I was under your spell, when Jesus told me all was well. So all must be well.” The song’s rousing chorus suggests a way to live within this fallen world, where stillness and peace are sometimes hard to find: “Keep the earth below my feet, for all my sweat, my blood runs weak. Let me learn from where I have been, keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.” For Mumford, being grounded and remaining humble is a vital way of interacting with the world, an idea which the album closer brings full circle. “Not With Haste” is fairly subdued in terms of tempo, but continuously adds layers of music throughout the song until the final stanza, when suddenly all the instruments drop out for a moment. This musical break sets the stage for the album’s final statement, a beautiful plea for the strength to live and love in a confusing world: “Do not let my fickle flesh go to waste, as it keeps my heart and soul in its place, and I will love with urgency and not with haste.”
Elsewhere on the album, Mumford continues to encourage listeners to slow down and treat life with the attention and care it deserves. On “I Will Wait,” the speedy tempo of the song contrasts with the song’s message, bringing Mumford’s lyrics about waiting into the forefront: “Raise my hands, paint my spirit gold. Bow my head, keep my heart slow.” In the quiet, morose “Lover’s Eyes,” Mumford asks God to “forget all of my sins” before the song transitions into a final section with a repeated prayer: “I walk slow, I walk slow, take my hand, help me on my way.” Suggesting this process of learning how to slow down is connected to contentment, Mumford uses the image of a pilgrim on life’s journey on “Hopeless Wanderer” to find some hope and peace on the road by embracing the current situation: “I will learn to love the skies I’m under.” I can understand how sentiments like these, which appear throughout the entire album, have given critics the ammunition to attack the sincerity of Mumford and Sons; however, the reactions to the emotional outpouring of Babel seem overly defensive to me, as perhaps Babel has brought up an issue that none of us like to confront in our own lives—cynicism.
Being a cynic is easy. In fact, I wouldn’t be the first to argue that in this day and age many of us default to cynicism when it comes to things like politics, religion, and popular culture. So when a band like Mumford and Sons comes on the scene, full of hope and brash emotional statements, we are inclined to try to find something wrong with their work rather than re-evaluating our own perspective on life through it. Yet, this is exactly what Babel invites us to do: take a second look at our lives, no matter how stressful and broken they may be, and find hope in places where cynicism has taken hold. I can’t think of a better way to end this review than with Mumford’s words from “Not With Haste,” both a rebuttal to the criticism and a helpful reminder for the rest of us cynics: “This ain’t no sham, I am what I am. I’ll leave no time for the cynic’s mind.”