In the flash of a young girl’s eye Mumford & Sons have become Britain’s greatest export. The post-Adele blues had barely set in - critics hadn’t time to predict the demise of the record industry, before a new bunch of British revivalists overcame a decade’s worth of doom and gloom. 158, 000 copies sold in a week. The UK’s fastest selling record of 2012, that would have been impressive enough, but the real shock came a week later when 600, 000 Americans purchased Babel.
At some unknown juncture between 2009 and 2012 Mumford & Sons quickly but quietly became the world’s biggest band. They had momentum, that much was undeniable, but who could have known that the band were on the verge of sidestepping the rigours of “the difficult second album” en route to global domination. “I Will Wait”, Babel’s boisterous and immediate lead single, failed to crack the Top 10 on either side of the Atlantic, and yet, within a month, M&S would outsell all their competition.
Bizarrely, despite their whirlwind success, Mumford & Sons continue to confuse and confound. These roots revivalists have managed to alienate so many. Simply put, they polarize opinion.
They are loathed: the music is savaged by critics while the stars’ upbringings are viscously picked apart by the infuriated masses.
They are loved by millions: M&S anthems are feverishly bellowed in muddy festival fields the world over and their records are devoured at record rates.
The neutrals are oddly agitated: baffled by both the ardent praise and the devilish relish of the band’s detractors.
Adele never faced backlash of this magnitude. There were parody videos, and cries of “overrated”, but as “Rolling In The Deep” resounded in indie and rock clubs, even her arch critics were forced to concede: “she can belt out one hell of a tune”. For Marcus Mumford and his folk-rock legion, there is no grudging nod of appreciation. They are loved, they are hated, and they are rarely understood. Why? Well that’s precisely the question Guitar Planet will seek to answer - why is this quaint, unassuming little band, so maddening?
Listening to Sigh No More and Babel there is certainly plenty of room for critique. Mumford & Sons have a grating quality. They are gnawingly earnest – each track is emotionally intense in the extreme, without really saying much of anything. Listening to the band for an hour or more can feel like a boorish lecture on rustic worthiness. M&S rarely afford the listener pause. Solemn reflection and subdued introspection are a rarity. Reviewing their chart topping LP back in September we tackled the fundamental frustration that lies at the heart of Babel, and the M&S sound:
“Earnest and simplistic in the extreme, Marcus Mumford spends the best part of an hour cowering in the darkness, tightly clinging to his lover’s hand, and roaring at the harsh and unforgiving world that surrounds him. It’s contrived and heavy handed in the extreme, and despite some genuine moments of reflective solace (“Ghost That We Knew”), Babel grinds the listener down. Continuously bellowing basic, and eerily repetitive, postcard ready sentiments as the band savage their fiddles with demented glee. Using a sledgehammer to crack a heartfelt nut, Babel sees one grandstanding crescendo follow another, and then another, and then another, ad infintitum.”
Still these are criticisms of the band’s sound: reasons why Babel isn’t an album of the year contender, not justifications for detesting the group as individuals. The Mumford & Sons’ sound is incredibly effective and praise worthy in its own right – it’s rousing, unashamedly catchy, and a welcome change from the usual big selling rock/pop formula. The overwrought, grating tendencies are merely the tip of the iceberg; the little nudge that sends miffed music fans spiralling over the edge – not the root cause. There must be a deeper resentment that these trifling annoyances simply exacerbate.
Scour any major website’s comment section and a common theme emerges. Spiteful posters take up a familiar line of attack: Mumford & Sons are phonies, pretending to be something that they are not to make money.
M&S are characterized as middle class Londoners dressing up like Irish peasants to peddle earnest folk music to the masses. They sing of famine and hardship as if Marcus Mumford had personally bloodied his hands breaking rocks and tending the soil for the first 20 years of his existence (in fairness listening to an M&S record you could be forgiven for assuming Marcus was married to a world weary milk maid, and not Oscar nominated actress Carey Mulligan). It’s a common criticism, one that is routinely laid at the feet of the London folk set. It plagued indie stars Bombay Bicycle Club and lauded singer songwriter Laura Marling temporarily, but M&S appear destined to forever wear the scarlet letter of false folk pretence.
Whether it’s outing Frank Turner as an Eton educated right-winger or Jarvis Cocker’s acerbic lampooning of working class chic (“Common People”), undermining and exposing class tourists has been a perpetual fascination of the British press and music industry. Mumford & Sons certainly don’t help themselves in this regard. The artwork for Babel sees the band dressed in rustic attire, surrounded by bunting, backed by a horse, at the kind of village fete that seems to exist only in unnerving 70s’ horror flicks and in the imagination of BBC2’s director of programming.
It’s a ballsy move. It screams: “haters be damned!” If their critics are already hysterically enraged, why not flaunt your image? Pop a few more misguided blood cells. Truth be told, Mumford & Sons are taking on an incredibly precious community. Class always niggles, phonies are routinely derided, but it’s the folk community on both sides of the Atlantic that bite the hardest.
Folk fans in the UK celebrate a rich tradition of musical independence that exists apart from the mainstream. Beautiful songwriting, challenging compositions and a unique rustic aesthetic inform the movement, and its fans hate (and I really mean hate) when a rock band comes along, dons the country labourers’ garb, plays a few fiddles, and gets labelled folk. America on the other hand, has wholeheartedly embraced M&S. They’ve taken the band at face value without a care for class pretention…but the States have diehards of their own. The workingman aesthetic is well worn, and the American country and roots communities are famed for rejecting pretenders and spurning those stars who turn from the righteous path.
Finally, Mumford & Sons have, through no fault of their own, been positioned at the front of an insufferable movement in British culture. Their rise has coincided with a year of cosy familiarity. Despite the Olympics’ brief infusion of dynamic colour and excitement, 2012 has been dominated by the genteel mundanity of Diamond Jubilees and Bake Offs. Where the word British has been turned into an abominable adjective meaning: “inherently possessing unparalleled brilliance because it's ours not yours, so there”. Mumford & Sons are the face of the new safe; the new bland, the new boring, and as Rebecca Nicholson of the Guardian so brilliantly put it:
"It's all part of this new Royal Wedding, Marks & Spencer, Englishness that's being celebrated, and it's making me sick"
The Deadly Cocktail: They create formulaic music that has a tendency to grate. They’re middle class rich kids pretending to be poor. They’re fake folksters appropriating but not truly reflecting a longstanding musical tradition, and they’ve become the poster boys for the new wave of Great British bland.
But Should We Care What Their Detractors Say? Fakery is hard to shake. It inherently undermines a band’s image and enrages their detractors, but it shouldn’t affect our appreciation of the music itself. If you love the big booming choruses, the cathartic outpourings, and those frenzied fiddle workouts then ignore the detractors. Adopting a false guise is an essential part of the artistic tradition. It opens up new avenues of expression as writers, painters and rock stars step outside themselves to find inspiration. There is something reassuring and enlivening about believability and honesty – but releasing some hit and miss records and wearing a waistcoat shouldn’t invoke daily diatribes of hate.
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