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).

And this…

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.)

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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  • http://noneofyourbusiness Professor Specs

    You’ll not be surprised to find out that I REALLY don’t like M&S. But for a host of reasons that aren’t discussed by “music” reviewers who know so little about MUSIC that their discussion revolves around everything but the actual music. (Yes. I am a bitter, disenfranchised musician.)There’s little discussion I’ve read that establishes whether or not the sounds themselves have any merit or artistry.

    No one is a bigger of fan of criticizing criticism than I am, but it’s about time we stop calling generic cultural criticism, music criticism.

    At least, that is, until someone critiques the music first instead of their clothes/lyrical insinuations/new sincereness.

    • Paul

      Prof Specs.

      I’ve been waiting for someone to affirm what I thought as soon as I heard M&S’s new singles from Babel. My initial thought was you could play every Mumford song back to back without changing the strumming pattern or most of the chords. I really liked Mumford when they first came out. I still like how catchy their songs are, and I enjoy them. However, the musician in me longs for some variety and wants them to take a chance…maybe play in a different time signature. Mix it up a little for ford’s sake!

      • Jeremy

        Basically, they took Laura Marling’s most catchy early tunes (think “You’re No God”) and made it formulaic. It makes perfect sense when you consider that they were musicians on her first two records.

        To me, it feels like an injustice that they found extreme success, while she’s just kind of plodding along.

      • Hunter Griffin

        They’re good with time signatures. Awake My Soul is in 7/4 and Winter Winds is in 12/8. I agree about the strum pattern however.

  • http://www.lemckelaw.com Ben

    “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.”

    Hopefully your upcoming book will be released before this great time is gone… Great article Mr. Fitzgerald.

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  • http://bekahbeemays@wordpress.com Rebekah

    I loved this entry. I particularly like how you identify the moment that we live in — it’s a pretty darn good time to be devoutly faithful to some kind of religious beliefs. And the New Sincerity seems a pretty good term for the artistic movement you’re talking about(although I would be hesitant to say megachurches promote “sincerity”– they too have their rites, they’re just of a different form). In any case, I look forward to the book coming out!

  • Mark M

    You write that the author of the story in Christianity Today “wants 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.”

    Way to misrepresent, dude. The CT writer is a huge M&S fan, the f-bombs notwithstanding. Anybody who actually read the article can see that. He simply points out what many literary critics would concur with: That multiple uses of such “shock-value” words make them lose their impact.

    Feel free to disagree with the article, but don’t tell your readers that the CT writer doesn’t like M&S. That’s an outright lie. But then, apparently that comes with the territory of being “contrarian” and proud of it.

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  • RV

    The article is really smart and well observed. But my problem with M&S is entirely sonic. I have never got past the halway point in any Mumford & Sons song that I’ve tried to listen to (Obviously I’ve heard far more than the ocassional half-song of theirs in the course of living) before stopping the music in a fit of irritable boredom. The music is overly polite and therefore dulling, and the vocal style is Jabba the Hut. I’m just not down with that combo. Gomez did it first, and I didn’t like it then. The openness to spiritual awkwardness you say is there in the lyrics (I trust you) is great. The best bits of life are awkward. One of my favourite parts of church are the transitions (From Passing the Peace to siting down again, for instance) that nobody is in charge of, and where we accidentally give most room to God. Awkward is wonderful. Honesty about doubts is great. But “New Sincerity”? Ugh. It’s very, very important that I never hear the tag before I hear a band associated with it, or I will not be able to listen to them with unbiased ears.

    I like at least 2 or 3 of the following in the sound of music:
    Aggression
    Beauty
    Creative Approach
    Danger
    Distinctive Sound
    Good for Dancing
    Great Lyric
    Intrigue
    Originality
    Tunes
    (alphabetical)

    best,
    rv

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  • http://www.susanisaacs.net Susan Isaacs

    Preach it Jonathan. Wait, preach it is too Jesusy. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

      Thanks, Susan!

  • Daniel Miron

    I love bands who don’t allow themselves to be pigeonholed, and feel free not to meet expectations. But The New Sincerity is a ludicrous term–we’re already past the death of irony by almost a decade, such declarations are rather hollow. If the band were really sincere, their name wouldn’t scream “fauxthenticity”, and they wouldn’t be so noncommittal. That aside, I rather like your writing, and hope you’ll take it kindly when I say that one takes a different TACK, as in angle of approach in sailing, not a different TACT. Cheers!

    • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

      Crap. You’re right (about tack, I disagree about the new sincerity, obviously). Either way, thanks for reading and critiquing.

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  • Joules

    Great post.

  • zach

    Curator Magazine did something interesting in the same vain http://www.curatormagazine.com/nathan-chang/we-need-to-talk-about-mumford/

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  • Hunter Griffin

    Mumford and Sons isn’t a Christian band though. Winston is an athiest while Marcus is a Christian (I don’t know about Ted or Ben). That’s probably explainable partially for their mix of secular and religious writing.

  • Simon

    LOL. The anguish in the review… reminds me of how my ex wife over played Amy Winehouse till I ended up divorcing her. Thankfully I can now enjoy listening to Amy again. I like Mumford and Sons because I think their tunes are good and they make me bop around the lounge/drive faster/wish I could play the banjo. Don’t take anything too serious or you’ll tie yourself in knots. Are they the new Wonderstuff? Not really the stuffies were always more fun. If they’re a religious band – great – coz I’m a total atheist, but still I still like their music. Put it this way – if they were stood in the city centre singing songs like this I’d stop and listen. At least until they said “all praise the lord for he giveth useth great thingeths”.

  • Ty McLeod

    I surfed in here after doing a google search on “Mumford & Sons backlash”, after reading a review of their show last night in Phoenix, AFTER attending said show myself. I’ll agree with you re: the blending of sacred and secular, because honestly, that’s how spirituality is lived on the ground – the masses don’t practice their faith behind cloistered walls and theological offices. It’s lived right here in the mud of the mundane, yes even the profane. If that very real blend disconcerts/offends the highly religious or the highly secular, tough shit. It’s human.

    That said, I think much of the backlash critics are throwing against M&S falls on deaf ears for the similar reasons. Sooner or later, the masses turn a deaf ear to critics sniffing derisively about “selling out”, “false sincerity” and the like. There’s only so much hipster demand for purity and cynic’s realism a body can take before they realize they’ve miss a certain romanticism/magic in their lives. If it can be gleaned even partly from a middle class band taking on working class trappings, they’ll jump for it.