Every now and then, I’m going to take a break listing my favorite things to talk about something I don’t like:
Mumford & Sons are a bland, calculated, passionless, hipster-baiting, inauthentic, and — in general — very unpleasant band. It bothers me that they are championed as paragons of bringing music back to its “roots.” That’s just BS.
I don’t entirely reject the “folk revival” movement that Mumford & Sons headlines, but I think a lot of it is bogus. I recently read an article that discussed these type of “revival” movements and their call for “authenticity.” The article argued that this type of movement, usually popular with wealthy urban or suburban people, is no different from poor or rural-based people listening to songs about drinking Cristal and wearing name brands: It’s simply fetishization of a different lifestyle.
I have no problem with that escapism except that (according to my cursory, anecdotal observation), M&S fans act like it’s something more. You’ll hear people talk about bands like Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show as if they are aspiring to some higher truth in music. They act as if there’s something more “real” about songs about country dirt and sweating on the farm than, say, Fountains of Wayne singing about prom night. I’ve known about a half-dozen Mumford and Sons “fans” — normally fairly reasonable people — who talk about their music the same way fundamentalists talk about their religion.
I reject any style or genre of music which claims to be intrinsically superior to another genre. Preference is subjective; I can say I enjoy the timbre of fuzzy guitar power pop, and you can say you enjoy the sound and structure of banjo-based folk songs, and we’d both be right. I’m not interested in that debate. There’s little to be gained in me saying “polished folk rock sounds like shit” or you saying “garage rock is trite stoner garbage.” Good music can come in any style, as can bad music.
(And, for the record, I actually quite enjoy some of the good folk revival music, like OCMS’s better moments.)
What I am interested in is this: trying to figure out which artists exhibit discerning taste, which voices have something to say, and which entertainers actually entertain. I’ve listened closely, and Mumford and Sons do none of the above.
First, the famous M&S sound: Banjos! Mandolin! Dobro! I like the sound of all of these instruments… in hands that seem to actually care about how they’re played. Mumford and Sons have basically two sounds: ballad mush and upbeat mush. (One exception: They only have one mode of banjo-playing, which is to play lots of notes at rapid speed with little consideration to what’s happening in the rest of the song.)
I appreciate that Mumford and Sons tries to sound different from the norm… except that they don’t actually sound that different from the norm! They are produced by Markus Dravs, who also produces for Coldplay and Arcade Fire. I would argue that M&S is basically generic rock with a couple stylish flourishes. Folk isn’t at the heart of M&S, it’s the cherry on top.
I’ll repeat that, because it’s a crux of the reason they bother me so much: Mumford and Sons were produced by an arena rock producer. They are a rock band, plain and simple.
Second, the melodies. They’re not very good. If M&S was truly interested in a folk idiom, I wouldn’t bother evaluating them on the terms I typically evaluate pop and rock. But, like I said, I basically consider them bland rock masquerading as folk to earn hipster cred. So, yeah, I actually care about melodies and such. Most M&S songs have, at most, one half of a hook in their entire composition. Their catchiest songs, like the overplayed “I Will Wait,” push one decent hook way too hard.
Third, the lyrics. This may be the worst part of Mumford and Sons’ music. I challenge you to flip through any M&S song and find a single lyric that’s not a cliche. Seriously, their lyrics all sound like they sought the most generic, filler album tracks from bad rock bands and put them in a blender. The resulting songs could have been crapped out in fifteen minutes (and probably were).
Fourth, the image. I don’t much care if a band pushes an idealized self-image too hard… as long as there’s more to the music than the image.
To prove I mean that last statement, here’s one example where I believe music overcomes a faulty image: “Imagine” by John Lennon. I know a lot of people think Lennon was a hero and truly believed the things he sang. I don’t: Lennon was insanely rich, owning hundreds of fur coats and a mansion. Yet he made his post-Beatles living singing about how we had to reject God and possessions and earthly shallowness for a greater brotherhood. I honestly believe Lennon had some interesting ideas, but his image as an enlightened Buddha and selfless hero was full of crap.
Yet I still love “Imagine,” because it’s a damn great song, capable of inspiring people and making them think. It doesn’t matter what his life was (and how it clashed with his ideas), because the resulting music is beautiful and powerful and moving and real.
But Mumford and Sons is ALL image, and it’s an image that rings completely hollow. Their lyrics are so devoid of specifics and original thoughts, their song structures so lacking in ebb and flow, that you can tell that the whole M&S presentation is a sham, not a thing of craft or passion. Everything — from the band name, to the instrumentation, to the album titles, to the fashion in promo shots — seems designed to appeal to people who want “authenticity” but are unwilling or uncapable to to think about what “authenticity” actually means.
No, Mumford and Sons is not a folk band. No, they are not a great musical artist (though I hear they put on a decent show; if so, I won’t say they’re bad performers). Rather, Mumford and Sons is a successful marketing stunt pulled off by a boardroom. They’re a carefully designed brand which has been engineered not to set off “mainstream” warning bells in hipsters’ heads while still being as mainstream as any band could possibly be.
But, most of all, Mumford and Sons is a bland, crappy rock band not worthy of the thousand words I wasted on them here.