I’ve been listening to Mumford & Son’s much-anticipated, newly released album Babel a lot over the last few weeks. I’ve also read a fair number of reviews, many of them negative. Some of these reviewers complain that Mumford doesn’t fit the mold of the Dylan-like folk prophet they expected. Some have found Babel’s heavy spiritual themes worth praising, others have found the same to be fodder for critique.
One of the things I love about working with and hanging out with the folks at rednow is that “good” or “bad” is rarely the primary topic of conversation regarding art and media. The focus is what “moves” us…. in short, the focus is wonder. Focusing on whether an album promotes wonder is different than whether it exceeds expectations, or fits a specific category. This focus significantly changes the way I experience albums like Babel. For example, while I tend to agree that Mumford & Sons doesn’t fit the Dylan model, it doesn’t bother me because there is plenty of wonder to go around on this album.
Consider the album’s “spiritual” focus that has so divided critics. Overtly spiritual or metaphysical themes in an album turn me off. I tend to shelf music that I see oversimplifying reality (i.e. Dylan’s “Christian phase”). Looking back, I felt in my Catholic upbringing that many of my nuanced questions were answered with discrete “good/bad” distinctions, and I shy away from music that seems to do the same.
Regardless of whether Marcus Mumford, the son of a Christian minister, experienced in his upbringing this same distilling down of reality, his newest album tends to mix those categories in ways that build tension rather than resolve it. Consider their treatment of pain and suffering. In Babel, these shadowy experiences of life are not ignored, but are instead narrated with the possibility of being overcome by hope. They don’t erase the pain, but they do simultaneously hold up its transformation.
But given how my pain and suffering do not seem to follow this trajectory, why don’t I find this album cliché or hard to digest? Indeed, despite the fact that Babel presents hope in the face of pain so directly and simply, I have to tell you I buy it. Maybe even more than ‘buying’ it, I crave it. After all, it’s hard to not want to believe in a hope that is delivered with such swooping choruses and straining shouts. However rare, Babel makes the experience of hope breaking into reality real because Marcus Mumford and company seem to deeply believe its truth as they play these songs.
And that is the power of Babel. In this album, Mumford & Sons look to shape our imagination beyond our direct experience with the pain of reality. Babel looks to experience a hope that extends beyond optimism. Can art change our understanding of reality when our own lives and experiences don’t at all seem to match up? This album makes me think yes.