Mumford & Sons is out with their new album Babel, which is already being greeted by the same negative reactions from critics—and eager embrace from fans—that met their first. Many conservatives and Christians see the critical savaging of Mumford as another instance of media bias—the sequel to recent attacks on Tim Tebow, Sarah Palin, et al.
That might be, but whatever their motivation, the media are right about Mumford’s musical stylings. In subject and in style, the music of Mumford and Sons is nostalgic and subjective rather than historical and committed. Traditional folk and roots music, when it is not merely humanely, honestly simple and silly, is about spiritual, sexual, and political yearning. Praising Christ, lamenting death, demanding justice. The singer has an existential position—as sinner, laborer, husband, wife—from which they sing. And the audience must take sides. For revenge of an infidelity, for redress of an injustice, for the glory of God.
But Mumford does not demand any public or existential commitment from its listeners. It is the typical suburban song-spinning of popular music, but unlike that popular music it affects to be about something more. Mumford seems to be incapable of writing serious songs and unwilling to write ones that eschew bombast. Hence the vague historical and religious references. Hence the waistcoats sans jackets, the odd assemblage of nonsense wardrobe items that share no connection to each other beyond their outmodedness.
Mumford and Sons are a kind of musical Pinterest. They “collect” without really linking together a variety of quaint, beautiful, and touching things. A little gospel here, a little Chesterton there, a little waistcoat here. Because of their penchant for gathering any and every sartorial, lyrical, and instrumental oddment, their coy references to the gospel and GKC become just the “pinning” of another striking and well-wrought thing. We don’t know if they’re Christians (or indeed if they have any existential commitment), or if they’re just aesthetic reactionaries of a limited type. Eclecticism precludes evangelism.
The whole problem is well represented by their name, “Mumford and Sons.” It suggests history, tradition, the passing down of something real—above all, the transmission of blood. But Marcus Mumford is not in a band with his sons; in fact, he has no sons at all.