Beige Like Folk: America Sings the Mumford Hymns

October 11, 2012

Late September 2012, the headphones blew up with bliss for a new ear-candy kiss. Listening to the new release since before dawn, I prayed over the computer keyboard and wrote on Facebook that I was drinking my Mumfords and listening to my morning coffee. The mixed-up metaphor did not require correction. Mumford and Sons make us all feel connection to a power greater than ourselves. The sophomore album Babel stands out in a season of great albums to sustain community, explain self, and maintain spirit.

That first week of Fall, I couldn’t walk anywhere on the college campus where I work without someone asking me about the new Mumford disc. The students were excited to share these epiphanies with me, knowing I was a veteran of five Mumford shows: two Bonnaroos, one Ryman, a Railroad Revival in New Orleans, and most recently, Gentlemen of the Road in Bristol. Stuck at the top of the charts as the best-selling record of the year, Babel brings the wild news that folk is once again the new pop and that these Brits are the best American band.

Recent drops by native sons Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, or Old Crow Medicine Show no- doubt dial-in to the same Americana revival at the intersection where folk meets rock and pop and country, but in some strange turn that’s similarly brought us Beatles, Stones, and U2, the United States of Listening Sensibility hinges on the rustic banjo sting of how an American idiom gets interpreted by inspired imports. When the pseudo-hobo train-hopping meets the prep-schooler’s chart-topping, the popular culture gets soaked in sepia-tinted photographs and earth-toned authenticity. Not dayglo but khaki, not shimmery sheen but olive green, not sky blue like jazz but Carhartt beige like folk. Plain but filled with platitude, not ashamed of gratitude.

A common conversation on Twitter and Facebook confirms the conviviality and convergence of our Mumford moment. Our ears and spirits reconnect as our souls get drenched in rocking banjos and redemptive blood. The Mumford mania soaks folks in biblical imagery, but an audience doesn’t mind spiking the communion grape juice or spicing the faith journey with ferocious f-bombs. Mumfords make postmodern hymns as dusty as Dylan but as dangerously contemporary as anything hip hop or techno could hope for.

The backlash against Babel has been thankfully confined to the crustiest snarks inside the rock critic intelligentsia whose cries of boring conservatism cannot put a dent in our boisterous sing-alongs, infectious memes circulating and myths percolating from campus dorm shaking to car stereo shouting. The record by no means condones or upholds the ubiquity of Babylon; rather, it humbly confronts the greed and the pride of walls that will either crumble of their own weight or be torn down by hands like ours.

The Mumford formula finds strength in weakness, finds voice in “grace and choice.” This isn’t Top 40 gospel; it’s the gospel gathering enough acoustic confidence to occupy the Top 40 with a holy cup of folkster fury. This isn’t the stuff of superficial sin cities but sinners confessing sins and setting out “to serve the Lord.” These whispers in the dark are screaming at dawn: this isn’t your only chance, but by gosh, the Mumfords suggest, don’t blow it. Forgive but don’t forget. Live and love for today. Don’t burn out or fade away.

For a pop culture perched atop imaginary towers of narcissism, Mumford and Sons offer a vigorous valley of profound patience for the people bred towards impatience and instant gratification.

Kneel. Wait. Touch the ground. Forgive. Tweak your head to touch your heart. This is holistic hootenanny for the fragmented and fractured. Sure, it’s not the return of the 70s “freak folk” as the Brit-crits blithely badger the sons of an evangelical revival, but this summer-camp altar-call is freaking phenomenal. The fans of psychedelic folk may look elsewhere; the mind-altering nature of God always makes the strictly secular cultural guardians uncomfortable.

As we surmise, an instant classic takes us by surprise. The 21st century update to “Freebird” is another “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” another arm-waving set from a quartet qualified to sing about Jesus and release cover songs by American 60s greats without them winking or us cringing.

Ghosts and hope, lovers and light, feet and knees, haste and wander: the poetry drips like a waterfall,  melts ice after a deep freeze, flips a switch to the turn the lights back on inside a cynical self, rips like a roatrip waiting for a thousand sunrises. Don’t confuse their earnest yearning with clobbering certainty, though, for these are songs for serving and learning, not turning or burning.

Lest people perceive this soaring universalism and spiritual populism as some kind of creepy uptight piety, it seems the band members themselves are hardly as serious as the songs. From a distance, it even looks like they are robust partiers sipping the strong stuff, even though this listener-fan-reviewer loves the fact that even the debut Sigh No More came out after I got sober. Never having heard the Mumfords while drunk serves me forever strong and singing along, a tall glass of cold water or mug of hot coffee for the sunniest of sainted and dry intoxications.

The rock n roll inside this folk revival insists to roll us and persists to save us. No sea of quiet or army of acoustic can hide the arena-worthy aspects, and frankly, the kids fighting to find tickets will find some peace when these gents offer shows in giant venues. Don’t believe any of the negative hype and remain a believer.

This album gives and gives and forgives, nothing shy of the soundtrack to your savory living, a constant reminder of hope’s fire and your heart’s desire. Nothing about Babel can be construed as a step backward, and even for those who claim they’re just treading water, they are treading water in a soul-thrilling river Jordan for the Facebook generation, where our ears get perpetually baptized and our fears have forever capsized. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

http://www.mumfordandsons.com/