Babel, Mumford & Sons’ foot-stomping, banjo-infused second album better suited for the local EnormoDome than a front porch in Appalachia, outsold all but two other albums on iTunes in 2012. It’s up for four Grammy awards.
The cool kids aren’t happy.
“The religious overtones on Mumford & Sons’ sophomore album come as no surprise,” the Los Angeles Times blurts out in the first line of its critique. The paper notes that “frontman Marcus Mumford first circulated in the scene around the Vineyard, an international network of evangelical Christian churches (Mumford’s parents are leaders of the community in the U.K.). So when he notes that ‘this cup of yours tastes holy,’ as he does here in ‘Whispers in the Dark,’ you figure the guy knows what holiness tastes like.”
An NPR piece on the backlash against the band notes that the group’s singer was “raised in a devout Christian household” and that the “rise of the megachurch… has a lot to do with the newest wave of folk-rock taking hold.” The writer references a “rock ‘n’ roll code” that celebrates outsiders and subversives. Mr. Mumford, a Christian in the pop world of Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and Eminem, rebels against that code. This makes him a conformist. Do you follow?
The opening line of Spin’s review of Mumford & Sons’ Babel tells us that the album Marcus Mumford gravitated to as a child was Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, “You know, Bob Dylan’s first Christian one.” The review, ostensibly about a record release, notes that Mr. Mumford’s parents “are big on the God thing.” When the piece gets around to the album, Spin informs: “that Holy Spirit and Satan stuff winds all through the band’s music.” If you missed the writer’s condescension toward God and everything religion related (and few did), he adds: “Pope rock will never die!”
Critics, more so than the bands they critique, lack originality. The herd mentality they lament in music they embrace in criticism. The Marcus Mumford meme demonstrates this. Few bands play like Mumford & Sons. Few critics say anything different about Mumford & Sons.
Sonically, the mere fact that Mumford & Sons features organic instrumentation sets them apart from other popular music. You hear drum machines, Auto-Tune, and synthesizers on the radio. But banjos, accordions, and the dobro?
Lyrically, Mumford, even if sparingly and obliquely, addresses matters of faith. Rihanna can sing that “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But chains and whips excite me” in “S&M.” Madonna can make a play on the club drug ecstasy in titling her latest album MDNA. Snoop Dog can rap about killing undercover cops. Just don’t dare talk about Our Father.
In a world without taboos the only taboo is God. A higher power reminds of limitations, authority, and that something greater than number one exists. The rock star imagines himself as a human deity, and his many worshippers treat him accordingly. God’s a real buzz kill in that anthropocentric universe.
That writers find a person of faith in the pop world remarkable is itself remarkable. In Britain, where a recent poll found more believers in UFOs than God, the band’s vaguely Christian outlook might be seen as slightly unusual. But in America, where Gallup continues to find that more than nine in ten Americans believe in God, the perplexed response to Mumford & Sons says more about the alienation of critics than it does about the band. The normal astounds the abnormal.
Critics really don’t like that people like a record made by people who like God.
Marcus Mumford knows this better than most. “No, it’s not a statement of faith,” he defensively told the British homeless paper Big Issue regarding the new album. “We don’t feel evangelical about anything. Really. Other than music.” The singer added the obligatory line about being more spiritual than religious.
It’s unclear what message Mr. Mumford sends with his music. It’s perfectly clear what message he receives because of his music. God is a heresy among the godless. Acknowledge your faith at the risk of excommunication by the pop-music popes.
We don’t learn from the reviews of Babel whether or not Mumford & Sons are closeted Jesus freaks. We do learn that reviewers freak out about Jesus.