Mumford and Sons Babel: The Religious Beginnings of the Most Popular Folk Rock Band in the World
Now that the college semester is well and truly underway, I am spending increasing amounts of time sitting in libraries, working and listening to music. During these periods spent alone, I often find myself thinking about what my home in London is like right now, thousands of miles away. I pine for long walks through Hyde Park as the leaves begin to fall and the comforting warmth of good, English tea and ginger-nut biscuits. This longing for home has shifted my taste towards music that reminds me of my life before Princeton. Artists such as Noah and the Whale, Stornoway, Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons fill my iPod. Conveniently, earlier this autumn Mumford released a new album, Babel.
Mumford achieved popular success for their first album, Sigh No More, which was successful in the U.K. and later broke into the U.S. market, a rare feat for any foreign band, let alone one that plays folky rock. Sigh No More provided high tempo, catchy songs, distinguished by Marcus Mumford’s powerful, husky voice and Winston Marshall’s plucky banjo. In Babel, Mumford and co. have not radically changed their style. The album’s lead single, “I Will Wait,” is, like “Little Lion Man,” an upbeat, raucous tune that has already placed highly on charts throughout the English speaking world.
The rest of the album follows suit, providing an equally enjoyable, but perhaps more refined, sound to that of Sigh No More. Babel is pleasant and uplifting and I am sure that over the coming months I will become as familiar with it as I did with Sigh No More. And, like with Sigh No More, I also realize that as I sing along to Mumford’s lyrics, I will be singing abridged verses from the Bible and other words with a clearly spiritual message. I find these religious undertones surprising as Mumford is a young band whose members are perceived as cool role models – thanks to their style and celebrity associations; Marcus Mumford recently married actress Carey Mulligan. I expected their lyrics to be more linked to this trendy media perspective rather than to the Bible.
The Biblical influence of their music brings me back to some personal experiences relating to the band. I first heard Mumford & Sons in 2009, when they were still over a year from releasing their first album. My friend Rob showed me a clip of them playing “The Cave” at a small club; they went to his church, so he wanted to help publicize them. I didn’t think anything of this connection until, last year, I happened to visit this church, an incredibly popular evangelical institution called HTB. This happened because another of my closest friends, Nick, had recently started to think that he believed in God. Nick had heard about HTB and, aware that Rob was a member there, asked Rob to take him along. Soon Nick was going twice a week and hanging out with ‘church friends’ every weekend — a significant change from his previous social circles. Two months later Nick decided to undergo confirmation and invited me along to the service. By this time, I was curious to find out what the great appeal of this church was, in part because Rob had been going there his whole life and had many close friends, there whom I had never met. I felt that if Nick had become an active member in this community so easily, this church and its members must have had some appeal that Rob had never spoken about.
I carried a gift for Nick and wore a suit, and was surprised by the friendly and casual atmosphere that greeted me. I was immediately approached by a group of Nick’s new friends, at ease in their jeans and t-shirts. They introduced themselves kindly. I also noticed that there were musicians tuning their instruments on a large stage, surrounded by an impressive lighting system and several large television screens which showed different parts of the congregation being filmed. When the band was ready, the music began, and the church quickly transformed, becoming out of its early tranquility a highly-charged atmosphere. Hundreds of people raised their arms in the air and sang of God and Christianity in lyrics which seemed to me quite generic. I quickly saw why this church had such appeal.
Though I had previously associated evangelical Christianity with the Southern preachers I had seen on television, this wasn’t much different from going to a folk rock concert. The songs were quite good, and the lyrics began to scratch the surface of deep and meaningful topics. They seemed to me like highly effective and appealing tools by which the emotions of the believers could be harnessed.
What is interesting, in the context of my listening, is that Mumford & Sons’ music is very similar to those church songs, if with perhaps less direct emphasis on Christianity and the Bible. There is still plenty on both albums — the title Babel is of course a reference to the Biblical story of the same name. And the lyrics of “Roll Away Your Stone” — “Cause you told me that I would find a hole/ Within the fragile substance of my soul/And I have filled this void with things unreal/ And all the while my character it steals” — succinctly sum up the sermon I heard at HTB. Mumford’s lyrics are looser in their focus on these topics, and so more accessible, generalizing to the search for true love and the soul searching it entails. But it is clear that Marcus Mumford has been heavily influenced by the style and lyrical techniques of his church’s music. In fact, Mumford’s parents were heavily involved in the Church; and, though the band met there, Marcus Mumford has never explicitly said that his music promotes a Christian message. Whether he is telling the truth is of little importance with regards to Mumford’s success. He adeptly uses the power of the church’s vague, idealistic concepts — which are easily understood and related to — while capturing a charming essence of Arcadian Britain and barnyard dances. Joined with his gruff voice and the high tempo of the accompanying band, this religious aspect is essential to the popularity and pleasure of Mumford’s music.
For some reason — for this reason, perhaps — singing along to Mumford’s lyrics now makes me feel more uneasy than I did singing at HTB. I have tried to think why this is the case. Although I am not Christian, as a young boy, hymn practice during assembly at my school was one of my favorite times of the week. Yet these hymns were far more Biblical than Mumford’s are. And, further, I have no qualms about mumbling along to music by bands like the Smiths, even though I disagree with many of Morrissey’s values. I should be able to relate more to Mumford’s songs than to those of Morrissey or prayer hymns — so why can’t I? What is it about his lyrics that troubles me?
I think that my preconceived expectations of religious music is the problem. Before going to the church, to HTB, I read a long piece of investigative journalism that effectively labeled it a cult-like community. When I went to the service at HTB I was guarded and even a little worried that I would be drawn too far in by the friendly atmosphere and the enjoyable music. As a result, even though I took part in some of the worship songs, I was constantly telling myself that all this music was bizarre; I know that if I had let myself really partake in the whole experience I could have had a great time.
Before I visited HTB, I associated Mumford & Sons with an amazingly intimate experience seeing them at the Reading Festival and with long car journeys through the English countryside. My visit to the church forced me to realize how spiritual their lyrics were — and how opposed they were to what I believed.
Now, when I listen to the band, I can’t help thinking of my experience as an observer at HTB while my friend underwent an intense religious experience, urged on by cries which struck me as peculiar: "I know I still make mistakes/ but You have new mercy for me ev’ryday/Your Love never fails." Now, I cannot but feel these worship lyrics would fit into a Mumford song seamlessly, if only ‘You’ were the true love of one of the band members. Nevertheless, I feel surprising pangs of nostalgia upon hearing Mumford’s voice. It takes me back to my life in London, albeit a strange part of it. As I listen to Babel, I am grateful to Messrs Mumford, Lovett, Marshall and Dwane, perhaps for the memories they evoke, rather than for the quality of their music in itself.
This article was originally published in the Princeton University newspaper Nassau Weekly.