Marcus Mumford has done very well. After persuading his parents (church leaders John and Ele Mumford) to let him take a break in his degree and give The Music Dream one last go, he’s now fronting one of Britain’s biggest bands, who in late September released hotly anticipated second album Babel. Thanks to a mix of his background (he was actually born in Anaheim while his parents were working for John Wimber) and the theologically charged lyrics of 2009 debut album Sigh No More, much of that hot anticipation has been buzzing among Christians who will have been hoping for a repeat performance.
They may, I fear, be somewhat disappointed. Sigh No More contained enough positive references to the Christian worldview – forgiveness, sin, grace, redemption – to see the band unofficially tagged as stealth God-botherers. The very first track spoke of ‘Love [that] will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, It will set you free;’ Resurrection referencing ‘Roll away your stone’ saw Marcus reflecting: ‘...all my bridges have been burned, but you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.’ I could go on and on. Mumford apparently drew inspiration for some of these lyrics from his father’s sermons – we Christians loved the resulting album, finding it affirmed our beliefs, and created a neat potential discussion starter with our music-appreciating friends.
Pilgrims and Sinners
Babel is not short on biblical references – the title itself proves that – but the mood has changed considerably. Trying to work out exactly what the lyrics mean is a dangerous game; especially since all the Old Testament language and constant God-invoking is part of the Mumfords’ old-time shtick. It feels as if Marcus has shifted his point of view from hopeful pilgrim to dejected sinner. ‘Broken Crown’, this album’s regulation f-bomber, is a troubling listen from this point of view. The song appears to be a discussion of someone rejecting the possibility of grace. And boy, does Marcus sound particularly cross about it all. Another track, ‘Below my Feet’, includes a reference to Jesus, but it sounds more like a sarcastic dig than an affirmation: ‘I was told by Jesus: all was well’, mutters Marcus, ‘so all must be well’.
God still looms large, then, just not as conveniently this time around. There’s a strangely religious atmosphere throughout – portentous rather than reverent – so it’s often unclear who Marcus is growling at. Is it a woman, or is it a deity? Standout track ‘Hopeless Wanderer’ provides a perfect example: ‘I will call your name’, he rumbles, ‘I will share your road; so hold me fast, hold me fast, ’cos I’m a hopeless wanderer.’ Is that the cry of a pilgrim, or a lovesick poet? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps that’s the point; that God is an inseparable part of everything.
The album itself is inescapably similar to its predecessor. To some extent that’s the thing with folk music, but at the same time the record feels a little safe; a consolidation of what in 2009 felt like an innovative sound. Some tracks feel so familiar, you wonder whether they actually did appear on Sigh No More. Others feel fresher – the single ‘I Will Wait’ is a poppy singalong, while the title track is a gruff, earthy foot-stomper. Does one review an album in a vacuum, and purely on its own merit (in which case Babel is pretty good), or in the context of a discography? I tend towards the latter view, and can’t help feeling a little disappointed that while the lyrical content has evolved, the music itself hasn’t moved on.
Still, there are some great songs on here, and with the addition of a couple of new anthems, their already considerable live following will only increase. Babel’s mixed reviews didn’t stop it from reaching number one in its first week, and so millions of music fans worldwide are currently engaging with the band’s searching lyrics and evocative tunes.
Which takes us to the question: what were we hoping for from a new Mumford and Sons album? More songs about grace and heaven (for which of course we already have U2 and Coldplay), or another record that grapples honestly with God? It seems to me that Marcus Mumford is desperate not to see his band labelled as ‘Christian’ – one of the reasons he drops that four-letter word in now and then – but that he also cannot help addressing issues of faith with almost every song he writes. Perhaps his discomfort creates a unique perspective from which the faithful and the faithless can both benefit.
The author of many a spiritually ambiguous chart hit himself, U2 singer Bono once told Rolling Stone magazine: ‘The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognise the pivot, that God is at the centre of the jaunt.’ Listening to Babel, it’s hard to work out which direction Mumford and his friends are running in. Bono might argue that it doesn’t matter. We need to be mature enough to rejoice when any songwriter chooses to thrust the Christian story into the mainstream – wherever they might be on their own spiritual journey. Babel isn’t a great album, but it is potentially an important one. Rather than welcoming another set of cute cultural proof-texts that affirm our faith, are we brave enough to engage with its dissatisfied challenge?