I don’t want to be a Mumford & Sons apologist. Truly, I don’t. I want to be the cool kid who’s all like, “Yah, I used to listen to them. Like three years ago.” That’s more my style.
And then I could say, truthfully, that it’s actually my wife who really loves them. Who, when I showed her “Sigh No More,” played it and played it and played it until I absolutely couldn’t take it anymore.
That’s the kind of music critic I want to be. The problem is, that’s the kind of music critic everybody seems to be, which is turning me into a different kind of music critic. I’m still contrarian, but now I’m, umh, contrarian to the contrarians.
See how complicated this all gets.
Here’s the thing about most reviewers who take on Mumford & Sons’ new album “Babel.” You’re either the ultra-hip, irreligious type who is totally annoyed by all the Jesus-y stuff that Marcus Mumford writes about. You want the band to just admit they’re a Christian band and get on with it.
Or, if you’re not a total idiot and you recognize that pop music — particularly that of the folky variety — has long drawn on religious themes, you think that Mumford is just not doing it right.
Then, on the other hand, there are all the Christian reviewers. These dudes, writing in Christianity Today and First Things, take a different tact. You want to like Mumford & Sons. You really do want to like them. But you can’t, not completely. You can’t because of the F-word, which you’re convinced the band uses just to be cool.
Or, you can appreciate what they’re trying for, but their biblical allusions and references to theologians just aren’t obscure enough. They haven’t convinced you that they’re really who they seem to be. In other words, Mumford is just not doing it right.
But all of these reviewers miss something huge (I know, I know, now I’m going to claim to get what none of them do. So annoying, but…). They miss that M&S is part of something much larger than their little musical moment. Mumford & Sons are part of what I (and some others) call the New Sincerity. This is a larger movement that recognizes the artificiality of the separation between sacred and secular. They reject that pressure to fragment ourselves depending on our company. Today, I’m a spiritual person. Tomorrow, I’ll be rational. And so on.
Mumford & Sons are not the first band to do this. And they’re nowhere near the best. But, understood in light of this larger movement, they can’t be dismissed as too Jesus-y or not Jesus-y enough. They can’t be faulted for appropriating a range of themes and a diversity of musical influences into their songs; in the New Sincerity, you’re allowed to let all of your influences show. It’s okay if you don’t fit neatly into a box; you’re allowed to be more fully yourself. And this changes the criteria by which we judge popular culture.
Ann Powers, music critic over at NPR, seems to be the only writer I’ve read that gets this. Her review is right on in its understanding of the context that surrounds M&S and the history that they are a part of. Here’s an excerpt from her review:
The rise of the megachurch in America (and England, apparently; so Marcus Mumford’s Vineyard connections have revealed) has a lot to do with the newest wave of folk-rock taking hold. These institutions are grounded in the principle that religion serves people best when it meshes well with the secular world. Instead of cultivating a separate sphere where mysticism and anachronistic practices prevail, megachurches feel like everywhere else, except with God present (according to the faithful).
Indie artists like David Bazan, and later Sufjan Stevens, found fruitful ways to translate religious introspection into language that spoke to a larger secular audience. The most powerful work by these artists faces up to the fall away from faith as well as celebrating its comforts; dynamic belief always carries plenty of questions, and music offers an immediate and powerful way to confront them.
I don’t care whether or not you like the band. To be honest, my wife is well on her way to playing “Babel” into oblivion just as she did “Sigh No More.” I’ll probably hate them in about 9 days, if the current rate of play continues.
Further, I recognize that musical tastes are subjective and so on, but I’m pleading with critics, particularly Christian critics, to understand the moment that we live in. This requires assuming a different perspective on popular culture, but I believe it is truer to the moment, and bands like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, not to mention a whole slew of television shows, movies, and books, make a lot more sense when viewed through this lens.
It’s a great time to be a person with strongly held religious beliefs. And, frankly, it’s probably going to be over soon. Let’s recognize it while it’s here, rather than lament it when it’s gone.
(BTW, have I mentioned I’m writing a book about all of this, to be released in December? Just saying.)
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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