For years, Mumford and Sons dared not to leave their manor without a tiny child’s kick-drum, their antique double bass, their banjo strings, and, of course, their heritage tweed waistcoats. They sold themselves on flat-cap British sentimentality, positioned comfortably within white-cliffs nostalgia, fox-hunter rock, ukulele revivalism, and the upper-middle class folk scene that already boasted Laura Marling and Noah and The Whale. But it seems they are sick of it all, and for their new album Wilder Mind, the country bumblers have finally shifted into the next stage of their commercial mutation after months of Winston Marshall declaring “fuck the banjo” whenever he went out in public.
For the last two albums their schtick has been clear, both sonically and visually. Knowingly, the public school boys encouraged a very British longing for a pastoral idyll of ‘back in the day’, by wearing the clothes of landowners but playing the music of the everyman. It was the combination of tweed and banjo into an overall commercial aesthetic that made Mumford & Sons such flagrant fancy dress class tourists. They even came full circle and parodied said schtick in their video for "Hopeless Wanderer" in 2013, which you could give them credit for if making fun of Mumford & Sons wasn't really, really easy.
Truth be told, folk music’s intentions were appropriated long before Mumford & Sons. If we’re delving deep into semantics, the 18th century dictionary definition of folk music in England was ‘a song of the people’. Folk music was made by and for working people, only popularised when songs were ‘refined’ for upper class Edwardian families, stripping them of the historical markers that announced their working class origins. In Mumford and Sons that cycle was just continued, not invented - as the band monetised the worker’s genre with the commercially viable aesthetic of our modern day waxed moustache gentry.
Of course, we all cringed, complained, and threw the class argument at them as they rose to global commercial success on the coattails of this quaint aristocracy via the appropriation of folk. And they tried and failed to rebuff the argument in interviews, like with Q in 2013, when Winston Marshall claimed: "There is a reverse snobbishness in England”. Marshall, who attended the £7,000 per term St Pauls school in London, later admitted that maybe “it doesn’t help that [Mumford & Sons] wear waistcoats and tweed the whole time.”
But the truth is, all of that knocking down a peg of Mumford & Sons seems irrelevant now we see their new form, because, you see, the true one percenters that lord over the world of pop? They don’t play banjos. They don’t wear tweed jackets, and they certainly don’t have an aesthetic as specific as folk music. No, the true upper class, untouchable elite of pop music are the ones that can reach the event horizon of beige; a place where they can please everyone and offend no-one, for eternity. And it is here that the reinvented Mumford & Sons now desire to be.
Much like an English Literature professor’s mid-life crisis, the tweed has been replaced by leather jackets and motorbikes. There’s a real drummer, there’s even some synths, and their press shots are now in REAL streets rather than sepia tinted meadows. After being so painfully ‘English’ throughout their career, the band upped and went to write and record between the UK and the USA, because, as they said in that Q interview, they are “classless” when they are in America.
By ditching all those trusty signifiers that garnered Mumford & Sons so much criticism, they have transported themselves to a visual and sonic place that is insomuch indefinable. It is less of a transformation than it is a regression. Their trademark gimmick has been replaced with absolutely nothing. By aiming to strip themselves of their former codes and class, they have arrived at a musical non-place.
‘Non-place’ was a term first coined by Marc Augé in relation to the effects that globilisation has on architecture and geography. Non-places - devoid of historical or personal relativity - are airports, shopping centres; spaces in which we could be anywhere in the world. Non-places remove the discomfort of consumers by making sure there is a McDonalds and a Starbucks round every corner, lest we get disorientated and veer from our comfort zones. Non-places are impersonal and designed for functionality like the typical office cubicle layout, or the multi-storey car park.
In music, these non-places can be found in the generic, impersonal functionality of indie rock bands that seem to form and multiply and stick around like bad colds: Coldplay, The Script, The Fray, Keane, and now James Bay. Lyrics don’t have to be ‘about’ anything per se, as long as the listener is able to project their own experiences onto them. The blank canvas songs work to strict guidelines, starting out soft and building up to crashing, soaring crescendos with choir-like vocals. They are designed to tug at heartstrings for profit, kind of like every Nicholas Sparks movie ever made. People find comfort in the kind of clichés and platitudes that these bands churn out because they are often based in truth, but also because they are learned and repeated.
Lyrically and sonically, Mumford and Sons always tried to occupy this non-place. They always sang broadly about love and loss, and their music relied on a soft start with a bold finish to make up the bulk of the emotional impact. But by shedding their old image and musical style, their new record has allowed these platitudes to be heard even clearer. There was something a bit too masking and unique about hearing a banjo and double bass underneath mainstream indie rock love songs. Now, Mumford and Sons have come to the natural conclusion that these lyrical themes present, and their utilisation of sonic rock clichés emphasises the fact. “Believe”, their first single off the new album, begins with trembling strings and builds to guitar lines swimming in reverb with a vague lyrical refrain, “I don’t even know if I believe” taking up most of the melody. The title track is a tick-tock beat and no real chorus to be found, only a build-up that will likely often be referred to as anthemic, layering ‘ahs’ and crashing keyboard chords. Almost every song on the album is constructed in this same way; quiet to loud, slow to fast, propped up with the emotional rock anthem trope of the single, distorted guitar note played repeatedly.
Mumford and Sons’ new sound might appear as such compared to their old ways, but in reality, they have succeeded in joining the ranks of the gatekeepers of the musical non-place. In the band’s attempt to depoliticise themselves and access a utopia in which class and music cannot and should not intersect, they accessed a place that is classed in its very own way. Capitalism and globilisation created the climate in which architectural non-places could thrive, and the story isn’t much different in music. Shedding the signifiers of your privilege is not only pretty much impossible, but even if the attempt is successful it does not void that privilege. Mumford and Sons’ attempt to do so in their musical transformation merely highlighted their class anxiety and culminated in an even more generic and tried musical formula than they began with. People will love this album and be affected by it, but only because they’ve heard it all before.
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