Deconstructing: Phillip Phillips, The Lumineers, And The Mumford-ization Of Pop
The incessant shopping trips start to make your life feel like a single, unbroken stream of home-furnishings-related commerce when you reach a certain age and all your friends get married. So I’m not sure when or why I was in a mall parking lot with my wife when I first heard “Home” on the radio this year. What I do remember is that the song struck me as slightly unusual for WNCI, the local top-40 station we were bumping on that particular Macy’s trip. The chorus reached to the heavens on the strength of acoustic guitars, arching choral harmonies and a relentless 4/4 thud maintained by kick drum and stomping feet. The earnest lead vocal was a robust tenor accented with folksy tremble and weathered beyond its years like distressed denim. The chorus went like this: “Settle down, it’ll all be clear / Don’t pay no mind to the demons that fill you with fear / The trouble it might drag you down / If you get lost, you can always be found / Just know you’re not alone / Because I’m gonna make this place your home.” This had to be Mumford & Sons, right?
My brain probably generated a few alternate origin stories for “Home,” but none of them involved American Idol. Upon encountering the song again when it was smeared all over NBC’s Olympics coverage, I was dumbstruck to discover this was the first single from Idol winner Phillip Phillips, and not just the kind of dumbstruck you feel when you realize somebody really named his or her child Phillip Phillips. Idol winners have a checkered history where actual pop stardom is concerned, but it wasn’t surprising to hear this year’s champ on the radio. The surprise was just that a fresh-faced Georgia boy like Phillips would be on the radio sounding like a bunch of fervid Englishmen who dress up like Jack White in Cold Mountain. “Home,” written as Idol’s Season 11 coronation song by Drew Pearson and Greg Holden, seems scientifically engineered to replicate the Mumford & Sons formula. Folk-rock — even inspirational folk-rock of the Mumford variety — is not a sound I expect to hear from an institution founded on wind-beneath-my-wings diva bluster.
Then again, why wouldn’t a fame factory like Idol try to copy an approach that made Mumford & Sons the biggest band in the world? Just listen to these absurd statistics: Mumford’s debut album Sigh No More climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 two years after its 2009 release, and it was still near the top of the chart when follow-up Babel dropped this September. Babel moved 600,000 copies in its first week, the best sales debut of the year until Taylor Swift came along. It was the biggest debut for a rock band since AC/DC sold 784,000 copies of Black Ice in 2008. (Yes, that happened.) Babel’s success extended to the Hot 100 singles chart, where Mumford became the first band to log six songs simultaneously since the Beatles. Mumford-mania translated to live shows too; when the band came to my native Columbus back in August, it was initially booked for the 5,000-capacity outdoor amphitheater LC Pavilion, but tickets were on pace to sell out during the presale, so the promoter moved the show to the parking lot behind the venue and doubled the capacity. Judging from the buzz in town that day and the number of people who lined up along the fence to hear the show, they could have easily filled an arena or two.
Imitating a band that’s incurring that level of adulation is obviously a lucrative career move, so of course Phillips isn’t the only one doing it; it seems to be working out for Denver folk trio the Lumineers. The group shares Mumford’s aesthetic in both sight (a fondness for olde-timey instruments and attire) and sound (acoustic anthems with mega sing-along potential), and they recently pulled off a similar leap from budding underground sensation to legitimate chart power. The Lumineers’ self-titled album made it up to No. 11, and clap-and-stomp-powered single “Ho Hey” is at No. 13 and climbing. A few months ago this band was part of the undercard at an independent radio fest here in Columbus. Now they’re set to tour arenas with Dave Matthews Band, which — well, more on that in a second. First, let’s talk about context.
What initially took me aback when I heard “Home,” and what’s so astonishing about this whole folk-rock-on-the-pop-charts movement, is how it’s happening in an environment almost entirely geared around club music. The EDM explosion has been well-documented, so no need to belabor the point, but just consider for a moment how dance-oriented the singles chart is right now. The Top 20 almost exclusively comprises R&B (Rihanna, Chris Brown, Miguel), rap (Kanye West, Flo-Rida), alternative bands gunning for the dance floor (Maroon 5, fun., Alex Clare’s polarizing Internet Explorer jingle “Too Close”) and outright dance-pop (Ke$ha, “Gangnam Style”). Taylor Swift has all but abandoned her bedazzled guitar collection to fit in there. It’s a wonder that a band in the Mumford mold could survive in this climate, let alone thrive.
How did it happen? Did Mumford and the Lumineers really just barnstorm the charts out of nowhere, or did they benefit from some trailblazing? One event that springs to mind is Arcade Fire’s Album Of The Year win at the Grammys last year. After all, those guys were donning olde-timey costumes and singing their compassionate Canadian hearts out long before Marcus Mumford was a blip on the pop-culture radar. But Mumford & Sons were already well into their ascent by the time the 2011 Grammys rolled around — remember, they and the Avett Brothers performed with Bob Dylan during the ceremony that night. Speaking of the Avetts, they surely had a hand in establishing the lung-busting dress-up folk demographic. So did their bookish counterparts the Decemberists. Those two groups might as well have sired Mumford & Sons during a one-night stand at Bonnaroo, and I have to believe they both would have a shot at crossover success if they released the right single right now. Whoever manages Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros should be leaning hard on radio programmers right now, too.
So we can choose to see the success of Mumford and his progeny as a long-gestating underground movement that’s finally spilling over into the mainstream, and there may be some truth to that. But I can’t help thinking these acts are carrying a torch that dates back to long before indie rock got in touch with its inner renaissance faire — a torch that burns kind of like chlamydia burns. Dating back to my first dabblings with top-40 radio at the height of Blues Traveler’s “Run Around,” the format has always had room for that bro-friendly H.O.R.D.E. Tour sound. Sometimes it veers toward jam-band status (DMB), sometimes teeny bopper guitar-slinging (Jason Mraz), sometimes goofy gimmick pop (Barenaked Ladies), but it always seems to persist on the pop charts. Now bands like Mumford and the Lumineers are fulfilling that role, but they’re also becoming the latest installment of the whole “indie goes mainstream”/”mainstream co-opts indie” thing that’s been happening since Seth Cohen’s heyday — or, you know, since Don Draper married Megan.
It’s an unexpected intersection of galaxies, but it’s happening. Really, what separates Mumford and Lumineers from the likes of Train and Howie Day? If we’re honest, most of it comes down to marketing more than music. These bands dress like Wes Anderson characters. They’re signed to indie labels — Lumineers with Dualtone, the home to Brett Dennen and Bobby Bare, and Mumford with Glassnote, which makes them colleagues with Stereogum favorites like Phoenix, Oberhofer, and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke. They’re both bound to pop up if you listen to the Bon Iver Pandora station for a couple hours. But they also appeal directly to a segment of the population that probably makes a sizable swath of indie music fans squirm. Lumineers are about to hit the road with Dave Matthews, after all, and the number of DMB T-shirts at that Mumford concert over the summer was telling.
Phillips exposes the common threads by embodying them. On Idol, when he got the chance to choose which song to perform, he opted for Dave Matthews Band’s “The Stone” and “Volcano” by Damien Rice, the Irish singer whose bleeding-heart folk is a clear precursor to Marcus Mumford’s anthems. His debut album, The World From The Side Of The Moon, out this week on Interscope, affirms his status as a living, breathing Venn diagram overlap. (Listening to it feels very much like a trip to the mall. Not so much the Olympics.) Every detail vacillates between sounding like a Mumford production and a Matthews production depending on how you crane your ear. Every weathered vocal run is a pivot point, every acoustic strum a litmus test. It reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where the girl Jerry’s dating veers from gorgeous to grotesque depending on the lighting. But it’s still the same girl.