Artists You Love to Hate to Love
by Ian Stroud
I have a challenge for you: Describe the band Mumford & Sons to me in one sentence.
You can’t do it. There’s always something left out. Are they new-age folk rock? Mainstream pop with unique instrumentation? Big ol’ bag of phonies? All three are more or less accurate, but there’s something about Mumford and Sons that’s simultaneously captivating and irritating. They are truly a band I love to hate to love.
Let’s talk about their look. I live in New York City, birthplace of the modern hipster, with their plaid, flannel, beards, suspenders, artisanal mayonnaise, and hella sick nasty ink. Though you’d never know it by looking at these people, this is a relatively new phenomenon, and I’m going to go out on a limb and blame Mumford and Sons for starting it. Not that there’s anything wrong with the pseudo 1800’s lumberjack-turned-musician look. It’s actually pretty cool on a lot of people. But it’s no different than teenagers going to Hot Topic and buying their curated goth clothes and machine-distressed patches. You’re being sold a lifestyle, same as always, and Mumford and Sons are the postermen for our current one.
Their music video for “Whispers in the Dark” and “Hopeless Wanderer” are both painfully self aware of their curated and test-marketed look. The other issue with the look of this band is how grassroots they want it all to feel. Copious Helicopter shots and bona fide movie and TV stars in their extremely polished music videos beg to differ with that argument. Also, kudos for making the video for “The Cave” one continuous Instagram filter. Gotta kill your shadows!
Mandolin. Banjo. Resonator Guitar. Set pieces for the modern hipster movement. In New York, there were a few years where you couldn’t attend an open mic, character show, or concert without someone pulling out a banjo or ukulele. They were everywhere. There were some summer nights where the streets were piled so high with banjos that you couldn’t get farther than a block without being dragged into a folk-rock band. You were lucky if you made it out with only a pair of muttonchops. Mumford and Sons are the cause of this. Each one of these instruments is unique and beautiful, and I appreciate them; issues arise when they’re used as gimmicks to mask otherwise traditional songs. Mumford and Sons have pulled the wool over our eyes, convincing a hip public that they’re unique and different because their use of banjo equates to ingenuity and creative brilliance.
(Un)fortunately, all of these issues work in their favor.
These Brits can sing. They can harmonize better than most. They seem to have mastered their gimmicky instruments and play them with genuine skill. Their song structures are simple, palatable, and are a gift for movie montages. And above all, they evoke a sense of emotion that most artists can’t touch. Take “Little Lion Man.” It was written by Marcus Mumford (of famed band Mumford and Sons), and though he won’t publicly say what the song is about, even the most jaded of listeners can sense the emotional and vulnerable weight he brought to the song, with lyrics like “Weep for yourself, my man, you’ll never be what is in your heart. Weep, little lion man, you’re not as brave as you were at the start”. I spent about 4 years in the above paragraph lampooning their instrumentation, but … what would you prefer? Anther band singing the same songs about love and loss and life and bullshit with a Stratocaster, bass, and basic drum set? Or: wouldn’t it be nice if someone tried to spice things up? Give our ears something new to listen to after decades of homogeneous noise? At least the banjo catches your ear. It may be easily swappable for any other six-stringed instrument, but change is nice every once in a while.
These guys are also masters of dynamics. It is very common for top 40 hits to look like this:
That is three and a half minutes of assault on your ears, courtesy Ke$ha and Pitbull’s “Timber.”
This is what “Little Lion Man” looks like:
Isn’t bullshit science great? None of this means anything. Hell, I cherry-picked the two songs I knew would support my argument the best. But it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
The point is that Mumford and Sons may actually be legitimate musicians who make strong choices and try to engage the listener mentally as well as musically; something that you can’t say about many other top 40 artists. As for their look, I really hate to admit this, but it works for them. They look really cool in those silly selvedge denim jeans and their long scraggly beards and their antiquated instruments. Their songs easily blend together. It’s tough to know when “I Will Wait” ends and “Awake My Soul” begins, but I love both the songs just the same. They’re a propagandistic arm of the music industry that spawned more bands than I can count, all of whom are trying to cash in on the same tropes. I’m looking at you, The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Imagine Dragons, etc. Those are bands I love to hate. They’re the worst.
Mumford and Sons? Now there’s a band I love to hate to love.
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Ian Stroud is a comedian and freelance camera guy in New York City. Check out his content at www.istroudyounot.com.
SINGLEHANDEDLY TAKING DOWN THE WORLD’S BIGGEST BANDS WITH MY WORDS ON CHART THROB.