Last month, some 15,000 fans gathered in a small Illinois town, surrounded by miles of cornfields, for what was ostensibly a day-long music festival. But most of us who had come to Dixon, Illinois, for the third stop in the American Gentlemen of the Road tour weren't there for the seven bands who whiled away the day. We were there for the headliners: the prodigious folk quartet known as Mumford & Sons.
After nearly six hours of musical performances, the time had come. The sun was set, the stage was black. Streams of tiny light bulbs were strung over the lawn, from the sound booth to the stage. But like the audience, they had yet to be electrified by the impending performance. At once, people could be seen on stage, and with the sound of a syncopated acoustic guitar, the crowd erupted in cheer as they recognized the opening chords to "Little Lion Man." The roar of the crowd colliding with the music put me more at the scene of a victory celebration after battle than a folk festival.
Three years ago, Mumford & Sons were just another ragtag London folk band. But their course was forever changed by their 2009 debut LP, Sigh No More. The album soon became a hit, and ever since, the group has toured endlessly. In an age when record sales are on the decline, Sigh No More has gone four times platinum in the UK, thrice platinum in Australia, and twice platinum in the U.S.
Mumford & Sons have a fresh and distinctive sound. The rousing combination of traditional folk instrumentation, militaristic drum patterns, grandiose brass, and aggressive vocal tracks give their tunes an arresting and joyful sound. But their sonic creativity alone is not what has captured the admiration and loyalty of millions.
A spiritual experience
Guardian reporter Laura Barton has described Mumford & Sons' live performances as "fevered and euphoric, about both the way they play and the audience's response, that puts you more in mind of an evangelical church than a rock 'n' roll show." The description is spot-on. Their shows are enthusiastic and joyful; fans sing and shout along, and there is an overwhelming sense of camaraderie. The band and the crowd have a sort of symbiotic relationship, feeding off each other's passion and energy.
Their lyrics—primarily written by frontman Marcus Mumford—are heart gripping, capturing experiences to which most listeners can relate—brokenness, regret, and longing for restoration. While some of the lyrics are raw and emotionally uncensored, they also provide glimpses of hope. Themes of love, grace, and forgiveness—and a dusting of other biblical references—also appear on Sigh No More, leading many listeners to believe that the band is drawing subtly from Christian faith. Literary references to Shakespeare and John Steinbeck can also be clearly detected.
The band's new album, Babel, is no different (our review). Mumford admitted to borrowing a line from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in one of their new songs, and says that the lyrics include so many literary references that they were "too many to count." As for biblical references, the title track alludes to the Genesis story of Babel. Double bassist Ted Dwane told Rolling Stone that the song speaks to human discontent, though he did not want to be too descriptive about the band's songs and their meanings.
Other songs are more explicit. "Below My Feet" mentions Jesus—not subtly, but by name. "Whispers in the Dark" mentions a cup that "tastes holy" (possibly a reference to the Eucharist), a "brush with the Devil," and an intention to "serve the Lord."