On paper, the British folk quartet Mumford & Sons doesn't seem like a shoo-in for international superstardom and nearly universal critical acclaim. But then neither did Adele.
In 2010, Marcus Mumford and his three bandmates (who are not his sons) released their debut, Sigh No More, a raucously folksy march into unplugged nirvana punctuated with pounding foot drums, blitzkrieg banjos, acoustic guitars strummed within an inch of their lives, and achingly earnest harmonies about life and love and faith and death. Suddenly, Mumford & Sons was everywhere—even landing a coveted set at the Grammys with the grizzled godfather of folk himself, Bob Dylan.
Now the group returns with its second effort, Babel, an album that takes every element of Sigh No More—both musically and lyrically—and amps them up into arena rock territory.
And by arena rock, I mean arena folk, a genre that doesn't really exist—but now should.
The story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 symbolically represents humanity's foolish, arrogant attempt to reach God on its own—an attempt God resisted and struck down. Mumford & Sons gives this theme a half twist. Over and over again, these provocative songs pivot between characters' foibles, flaws and failings, and their determined intent to keep clinging to hope, grace and faith anyway.
The title track suggests dichotomy. Mumford perhaps acknowledges both his folly and his simultaneous hatred of it when he sings, "Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride, I stretch my arms into the sky." He knows well his frailty ("You know our breath is weak and our body thin/ … I know my weakness, know my voice") yet proclaims, "But I believe in grace and choice."
"Whispers in the Dark" speaks elliptically to the battle between truth and holiness on one side and the devil's lies on the other ("You hold your truth so purely/Swerve not through the minds of men/This lie is dead/This cup of yours tastes holy/But a brush with the devil can clear your mind/And strengthen your spine"). Lead single "I Will Wait" apparently mingles love for a woman with love for God, concluding with what seems like a worshipful prayer for self-control and clarity: "Now I'll be bold/As well as strong/And use my head alongside my heart/So tame my flesh/And fix my eyes/A tethered mind freed from the lies/And I'll kneel down/Wait for now/ … Know my ground/Raise my hands/ … Bow my head/Keep my heart slow."
On "Holland Road," a broken man seems to admit that his own failings have inflicted deep hurt upon someone else—hurt that's boomeranged back upon him. Still, he's determined to forgive that harsh treatment ("I wished you well as you cut me down") and to cling to his faith even as he longs for reconciliation ("When I'm on my knees, I still believe/And when I've hit the ground, neither lost nor found/If you'll believe in me, I'll still believe"). "Ghost That We Knew" recalls a painful sundering of relationship in the past even as it looks forward to a brighter, better future. Likewise, on "Lover of the Light," a husband seems to promise a wife who's on the verge of leaving him that he's committed to changing his ways to win her heart again.
"Lover's Eyes" finds a man haunted by the memory of his beloved's eyes, a woman who's now left him. In her absence, though, he prays, "Lord, forget all my sins/Take my hand/Help me on my way/And I'll walk slow." "Reminder" and "Hopeless Wanderer" both involve men clinging to hope and meaning in the aftermath of losing love.
"Broken Crown" grapples with spiritual struggle and temptation: "The pull on my flesh was just too strong/Stifled the choice and the air in my lungs/Better not to breathe than to breathe a lie/ … Oh, my heart was flawed, I knew my weakness/So hold my hand, consign me not to darkness." "Below My Feet" also pleads for purposeful strength: "Keep the earth below my feet/For all my sweat, my blood runs weak/Let me learn from where I have been/Oh, keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn."
As was the case on Mumford & Sons' debut, the album's generally positive vibe gets interrupted by jarring f-words on one track. This time it's "Broken Crown."
Seemingly mingling the carnal and the spiritual, cryptic lyrics on "Whispers in the Dark" hint at a man's opposing desires for illicit sex and serving God: "Whispers in the dark/Steal a kiss, and you'll break a heart/Pick up your clothes and curl your toes/Learn your lesson, lead me home/Spare my sins for the ark/ … I'm a cad, but I'm not a fraud/I set out to serve the Lord."
Outside of the contemporary Christian music environment, it's a rare thing to hear a musical act pour out its innermost thoughts in such consistently theological language. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. Flesh. Sin. Hope. Looking at the lyrics for some of these songs, they seem closer to something you'd hear in an ancient hymn or an epic poem by John Milton than something sandwiched between Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift on the radio.
Album closer "Not With Haste," for instance, acknowledges life's difficulties but looks forward to a time of healing in the future (perhaps in heaven?) and determines to keep loving well until we get there: "Do not let my fickle flesh go to waste/As it keeps my heart and soul in its place/And I will love with urgency and not haste." Fickle flesh? Who writes lyrics like that? Chris Martin? Bono? Maybe Leonard Cohen?
I can't tell you where Marcus Mumford is coming from spiritually. But I can say that his band has once again born remarkable lyrical witness to the inescapable tension between our best spiritual longings and our deepest fleshly failings. Eject the f-words on "Broken Crown," and it's clearly the former, not the latter, that get the last redemptive word on Babel.