Grit & Grace in Mumford & Sons' "Babel"


As the indie-folk revival continues to sweep the music world, and bands The Lumineers, The Low Anthem, and Of Monsters and Men garner more fans, one band stands far ahead of the pack.

When we left Mumford & Sons, we were wondering about their "two predicaments" - the first, a thematic one expressed in their lyrics about standing between the promise of the future and the brokenness of past; the second, the more practical issue of standing between the massive critical and commercial success of Sigh No More and the threat of a sophomore slump.

Babel is no slump; it may not be Sigh No More but, thankfully, it deepens and expands its musical formula, with the added element of a live, energetic sound acquired on the road. The steady kick drum, the airy harmonies, and rollicking banjo carry us off on more upbeat tracks like "Whispers in the Dark," "Lover of the Light," and "Hopeless Wanderer," but are balanced out by more chill tracks like  "Ghosts That We Knew," "Reminder," and "Not With Haste." A bonus track cover of Paul Simon's "The Boxer" is unexpected, but doesn't feel forced or misplaced - instead, falls perfectly into the flow of Babel.

While much of Mumford & Sons' success is attributable to this endearing folksy sound, what has stood out to me again on this album is the power of the lyrics.

A lot of the songs on Babel, without question, are directed toward the ecstasy ("Lover of the Light") and heartache ("Reminder") of love. But the lyrics have a certain character that evades this easy definition; and even if some of the songs have a touch of teenage sentimentalism, they are almost always moving and thoughtful.

A cynic might say that the attraction stems from vagueness; that Mumford & Sons present a lyrical blank check onto which a fan can project his or her own worries and passions. After all, in talking about an earlier draft of the album, Mumford admits in an NPR interview that the album felt "a little obscure in places lyrically. [The question came up], 'Can we maybe think about being a bit more direct with the lyrics?'"

The danger with obscure lyrics, of course, is obscurity - saying nothing interesting or even comprehensible to your audience. (I wrote an article last week about Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master which, in my opinion, has just such a problem.) But Mumford & Sons have a cohesive vision and guiding principle that unites their songs and gives them flavor and substance, and it is a vision with very distinct colorings.

In that same NPR interview, we read:
Mumford grew up a preacher's kid, and so it's natural to presume that the new album's title, Babel, takes on a certain biblical relevance. But the idea is far wider. 
"There are matters of the heart and sort of spiritual considerations that most humans have — explorative, really," Mumford says. "We're inspired by such a range of things between the four of us."
In a Rolling Stone review, we see a similar assessment:
"But it's the band's lyrics, and Mumford's delivery, that define the album's sound. Babel is full of all manner of religious shoptalk, with Biblical metaphors swirling like detritus in a Christopher Nolan film. Jesus is invoked above Edge-style guitar on 'Below My Feet.' On 'Whispers in the Dark,' Mumford declares an intention 'to serve the Lord' over a Riverdance bounce. Compared to unfreaky-folk-revival peers like the Avett Brothers or the Low Anthem, Mumford & Sons really double down on the ol' time religion. 
Mumford grew up around evangelicals - his parents are English figureheads of The Vineyard, a California-born Christian movement that's so pop-savvy, they run a couple of record labels. (Bob Dylan was a member of the fellowship during his Christian phase in the Seventies.) But proselytizing is not the mission on Babel. Where Rick Ross slings church flavor to add levity to street tales, Mumford uses it to supersize and complicate love songs."
Both NPR and Rolling Stone are careful to distance Mumford & Sons from the Biblical framework that their lyrics dabble in: NPR calls their scope "far wider" than "biblical relevance," and Rolling Stone insists that the religious lyricism is a means to an end - namely, to "complicate love songs."

Of course, to a certain extent, they're absolutely right. Mumford & Sons do not seek to convert or prosteltyze with their songs, and if they did, they would never have achieved even a fraction of their current success. The universal, humanistic spirituality of their lyrics - something Mumford chalks up to their four different world views - is plain to see. Moreover, in a recent interview, frontman Marcus Mumford said that they are "fans of faith, not religion," and that the group "is more social than religious, verging on philosophical."

Still, the religious allusions referenced by Rolling Stone are still very noticeable; and there are more. Right off the bat, we see a title that references a Biblical event; and in the title track, the very first line of the album - "Cause I know that time has numbered my days" - invokes a language used in the Psalms: "Show me, O Lord, my life's end and the number of my days." 

But it doesn't stop there:

"Whispers in the Dark":

This lie is dead
And this cup of yours tastes holy
But a brush with the devil can clear your mind
Strengthen your spine...
I'm a cad but I'm not a fraud

I set out to serve the Lord

"Lovers' Eyes":

Should you shake my ash to the wind
Lord, forget all of my sins


"Below My Feet"

And I was still
I was under your spell
When I was told by Jesus all was well
So all must be well


"Not With Haste":

Though I may speak some tongue of old
Or even spit out some holy word


"For Those Below":

You told me life was long but now that it's gone
You find yourself on top as the leader of the flock


But let's take Mumford at his word that these explicit allusions to Christianity are only poetic. What do we see expressed in the ideas and imagery surrounding these tidbits? What is the philosophical "vision" of Mumford & Sons?

I think that we see in their songs, time and time again, a vision of the human person as creature, one that is on the move
First, the creature part. Throughout the album, we hear deceptively simple language stirs a quasi-mystical appreciation for the natural world. Look at some of the words on Babel used to describe the physical world: sun, skies, dark, light, mountain, ground, ivy, stone, cold, shadow, shade, night, woods, ash, wind, air, fire. 
Now, look at some of the "bodily" words used to describe people, and how it folds neatly into this framing of the world: flesh, heart, breath, hands, spine, belly, knees, eyes, ears, lungs, throat, tongue, voice, blood, sweat, bones
This enticing, earthy language presents a vision of the human being in creation. In other words, we are bodily creatures, in a world that is good - not an illusion or a "veil" or an evil place, but a loved place that is worth loving. In many of these songs, little things and simple things are special things; they make us re-see the mundane and "keep the earth below our feet." 

But now, look at some of the more "immaterial" words sung in each song: pride, grace, sin, choice, love, hope, desire, dreams, sadness, heal, rage, value, freedom, wordssoul, serve, learn, mind, desperation, pain, logic. These words hit home another important idea - that we are not only matter like a rock or a tree is matter, but free creatures that feel, think, and desire, from the heart, the mind, and the will - all Thomistic "powers" of the soul. This is not a dualistic vision - Mumford & Sons intimately tie all matters of the spirit to the wonders of the world. We are both dust and clay and heart and soul; a creature in transit, undergoing transformation.
This seems simple enough; but different cultures and times have denied either the dignity of the spirit or the dignity of the body in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. (In our own culture, there are signs that we are increasingly doing both, in both ways.)

But, like Sigh No More, Babel both plants us in the ground ("in these bodies we will live, in these bodies will die") and exalts us to the sky ("where you invest your love, you invest your life"); in the salt of the earth, Mumford & Sons seek the light of the world.

This vision may be more philosophical than religious; but even so, it strikes me as more of an orthodox or classical view than a modern one. It's too faith-filled and impassioned to align itself with atheistic materialism; but this body-soul reverence, this interplay of grit and grace, is also more "sacramental" than "spiritual." It eschews dualism, and sings up a world that is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, "charged with the grandeur of God."

In fact, novelist and physician (and convert) Walker Percy might as well have been talking about Mumford & Sons' music when he said that a sacramental world view "confers the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world: bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening," and sees "a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding."

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