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.