Last month, some 15,000 fans gathered in a small Illinois town, surrounded by miles of cornfields, for what was ostensibly a day-long music festival. But most of us who had come to Dixon, Illinois, for the third stop in the American Gentlemen of the Road tour weren't there for the seven bands who whiled away the day. We were there for the headliners: the prodigious folk quartet known as Mumford & Sons.
After nearly six hours of musical performances, the time had come. The sun was set, the stage was black. Streams of tiny light bulbs were strung over the lawn, from the sound booth to the stage. But like the audience, they had yet to be electrified by the impending performance. At once, people could be seen on stage, and with the sound of a syncopated acoustic guitar, the crowd erupted in cheer as they recognized the opening chords to "Little Lion Man." The roar of the crowd colliding with the music put me more at the scene of a victory celebration after battle than a folk festival.
Three years ago, Mumford & Sons were just another ragtag London folk band. But their course was forever changed by their 2009 debut LP, Sigh No More. The album soon became a hit, and ever since, the group has toured endlessly. In an age when record sales are on the decline, Sigh No More has gone four times platinum in the UK, thrice platinum in Australia, and twice platinum in the U.S.
Mumford & Sons have a fresh and distinctive sound. The rousing combination of traditional folk instrumentation, militaristic drum patterns, grandiose brass, and aggressive vocal tracks give their tunes an arresting and joyful sound. But their sonic creativity alone is not what has captured the admiration and loyalty of millions.
A spiritual experience
Guardian reporter Laura Barton has described Mumford & Sons' live performances as "fevered and euphoric, about both the way they play and the audience's response, that puts you more in mind of an evangelical church than a rock 'n' roll show." The description is spot-on. Their shows are enthusiastic and joyful; fans sing and shout along, and there is an overwhelming sense of camaraderie. The band and the crowd have a sort of symbiotic relationship, feeding off each other's passion and energy.
Their lyrics—primarily written by frontman Marcus Mumford—are heart gripping, capturing experiences to which most listeners can relate—brokenness, regret, and longing for restoration. While some of the lyrics are raw and emotionally uncensored, they also provide glimpses of hope. Themes of love, grace, and forgiveness—and a dusting of other biblical references—also appear on Sigh No More, leading many listeners to believe that the band is drawing subtly from Christian faith. Literary references to Shakespeare and John Steinbeck can also be clearly detected.
The band's new album, Babel, is no different (our review). Mumford admitted to borrowing a line from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in one of their new songs, and says that the lyrics include so many literary references that they were "too many to count." As for biblical references, the title track alludes to the Genesis story of Babel. Double bassist Ted Dwane told Rolling Stone that the song speaks to human discontent, though he did not want to be too descriptive about the band's songs and their meanings.
Other songs are more explicit. "Below My Feet" mentions Jesus—not subtly, but by name. "Whispers in the Dark" mentions a cup that "tastes holy" (possibly a reference to the Eucharist), a "brush with the Devil," and an intention to "serve the Lord."
Many of Mumford's lyrics likely find roots in his own evangelical upbringing. His parents, John and Eleanor, are leaders of the Vineyard Church in the UK and Ireland. Winston Marshall, banjo player, told an interviewer that he and Marcus used to play in a worship band together at church when they were younger.
In April, Marcus married British actress Carey Mulligan, and it was reported that the two had a religious ceremony. Mumford's father officiated the wedding, and an insider told US Weekly that at the end of the night, several—including Mulligan—joined the band in singing "Amazing Grace."
While Mumford & Sons wouldn't be categorized as a "Christian" band—you won't find them in Christian bookstores or in the Gospel section at Best Buy—Christian themes nevertheless run throughout many of their songs.
Take, for example, "Roll Away Your Stone" on Sigh No More, a sobering confessional dealing with brokenness, longing for fulfillment, and dissatisfaction. Mumford makes a personal disclosure that invokes Blaise Pascal's concept of a God-shaped vacuum inside each human heart: "You told me that I would find a hole within the fragile substance of my soul." But he couples his stark confession with an affirmation of redemption that echoes Jesus' parable of the prodigal son:
It seems that all my bridges have been burned
But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works
It's not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
The title track to Sigh No More begins with a call for reconciliation: "Serve God, love me and mend." And the final chorus packs a profound theological punch, capturing the constant, liberating disposition of love:
Love it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more the man you were made to be.
Babel likewise includes a myriad of powerful, spiritual themes. But the invocation of biblical imagery is used mostly to give poetic depth to Mumford's love stories, not to endorse religion. "Not with Haste" provides a vivid picture of wholeness and restoration that resembles the description of new creation in Revelation 21:4 ("He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain."), but in the context of relational ecstasy:
We will run and scream
You will dance with me
We'll fulfill our dreams and we'll be free
And we will be who we are
And they'll heal our scars
Sadness will be far away
"Whispers in the Dark" uses scriptural imagery in a biting tone: "You hold this truth of yours so purely … and this cup of yours tastes holy, but a brush with the Devil can clear your mind." And "Below My Feet" summons Jesus, bolstering Mumford's reason for holding on to hope:
And I was still but I was under your spell
When I was told by Jesus all was well
So all must be well
Just give me time
Mumford occasionally punctuates his points not just with the profound, but the profane. Sigh No More's "Little Lion Man" drops the f-bomb five times in its chorus, and Babel's "Broken Crown" uses the word three times. That's not just disappointing; that's literary overkill. Writers and literary critics agree that when used sparingly, shocking words can work well. Provocative words can create shock and convey severity, but for Mumford & Sons, the too-frequent use of the word makes the songs feel gimmicky. I hope their third album loses the f-bomb template.
What does Mumford have to say about the nature of his lyrics? "I wrote a bunch of songs about a time and a place a while ago, and I've felt like they haven't lasted," he told The Guardian. He said the lyrics throughout Sigh No More are "a deliberately spiritual thing but deliberately not a religious thing. I think faith is something beautiful, and something real, and something universal, or it can be." He added that the band's members "all have our separate views on religion, but I think faith is something to be celebrated. I have my own personal views, they're still real to me, and I want to write about them."
Brutally honest, poetically robust
Mumford's description of his personal faith may be ambiguous, and interpreters will disagree over his treatment of religion and faith. Still, in the broader landscape of pop music, I believe Mumford & Sons are a sign of life. Their hopeful affirmations distinguish them from the cynicism of many indie artists, and from the often shallow, hedonistic lyrics of many mainstream pop stars. Mumford's lyrics even display a quality rarely found in most contemporary Christian music, where the lyrics tend to speak of God's love, grace, and redemption only abstractly; Mumford's lyrics are tangible—brutally honest and poetically robust. This connects with listeners. Ears and hearts are engaged.
Mumford & Sons herald a message that is rare and profound. Their songs tell stories of guilt, personal and relational anguish, loss, and discontent. But these themes are coupled with images of love, forgiveness, restoration, fulfillment, and hope. Few popular artists tell stories of the fall and redemption so poignantly. In "Holland Road," on Babel, Mumford sings, "With my heart like a stone, I put up no fight to your callous mind, and from your corner you rose to cut me down." But he adds, "When I'm on my knees I'll still believe." And in the title track: "Though the walls of my town they came crumbling down" and "Our breath is weak and our body thin" are followed by "I know my weakness, know my voice, and I'll believe in grace and choice." And in "Not with Haste," Mumford declares, "I'll leave no time for a cynic's mind."
But many of us are cynics—about politics, the economy, romance, religion. We need a voice to remind us that all will be well, that there is life beyond pain, restoration after brokenness. Mumford & Sons give voice to that message, telling us that love is persistent, grace is stronger than guilt, hope trumps despair. They even tell us we were made to meet our Maker.
We are called to recognize truth when we see it. This requires us to be charitable and discerning—to resist uncritical acceptance, but also narrow-minded dismissiveness. We should approach Mumford & Sons' songs with discernment and sensitivity—appraising their lyrics fairly, while seeking to understand their emotions and circumstances. We will find points to criticize, others to dismiss. But in the end, we will find much to honor and celebrate.
Kevin Emmert is a CT assistant editor and editorial coordinator for Leadership Journal and Preaching Today.
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