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.
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.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.