Ten or twelve years ago, Creed frontman Scott Stapp was on TV, talking about Zeppelin. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along these lines: Zeppelin were, in their time, the biggest band in the world, and critics detested them until the popular consensus surrounding them simply became impossible to ignore; this was now, presumably, Creed’s time to make the same leap into acceptance. That didn’t happen, obviously. Creed sucked too completely. But Stapp was right about Zeppelin and the levels of critical disdain directed their way. In the first of his great column series “The Winners’ History Of Rock And Roll,” Steven Hyden posits Zeppelin as the band that caused the split between rock-fan taste and rock-critic taste. (Check the column for some mind-boggling quotes from back-in-the-day Zep reviews.) In this particular case, the rock critics got it wrong; these days, you’d be hard-pressed to find any music critic, of any school or discipline, who regards Led Zeppelin with anything less than awe. And this wasn’t the last time the critics got a hugely popular band wrong. That brings me to Mumford & Sons, the present-day biggest band in the world. As with so many others, critics (and, perhaps more importantly, those fans who profess to have critical taste-levels) tend to regard Mumford as, essentially, dogshit, even as shinier populists like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga and Adele enjoy general-consensus critical acceptance and sometimes love. But after a couple of perverse-curiosity sick-day Mumford YouTube binges, I’m ready to say fuck all that. They’re good.
Now: Mumford are not Zeppelin. Obviously. Not even in the same galaxy. But in their sound, I hear trace elements of another band that once fell on Zep’s side of the fan/critic divide: AC/DC. That band’s secret weapon, as every reader of the great rock-critic contrarian Chuck Eddy already knows, was always drummer Phil Rudd. Rudd’s secret: He never played fills. Instead, his ceaseless boom-boom-boom heartbeat-pulse helped grant that band’s songs an irresistible forward momentum and lent them a secret connection to disco. Mumford, of course, have no drummer. So their secret weapon, it turns out, is frontman Marcus Mumford’s right foot. Mumford, during the band’s livelier songs, keeps time with nothing more than a kick drum. And with that kick drum, he keeps the band’s instrumental flights anchored to a simple, unrelenting 4/4 thump. Mumford are way less fun than AC/DC, of course, but that kick-drum pulse separates them from infinitely shittier nu-folk peers like the Lumineers the same way that Rudd helped prevent AC/DC from turning into, say, Bad Company. (And come to think of it, Mumford & Sons just sold more copies of Babel than any rock band [OK, fine, “rock band”] since AC/DC dropped Black Ice in 2008.)
Marcus Mumford started out as a drummer for the wispy London singer-songwriter Laura Marling, and he seems to concoct all his grand old-timey fantasias completely around rhythm; he almost never bends the beat to fit the affectations. On the rare occasions when the band does employ a full drum-kit, they tend to lose their way, and you get something like the risible fake-epic murder ballad “Dust Bowl Dance,” almost certainly the shittiest thing they’ve ever recorded. (“Lover Of The Light,” from the band’s 2012 sophomore smash Babel, does the whole-drum-set thing more successfully, but it still feels more bloated than the rest of the album.) But most of the time, even when the band layers on all sorts of orchestral bombast or slows down enough that they don’t need the drum, they keep that elemental thud at the center of things. All four members’ intricate musicianship is one of the band’s prime selling points, but that stark level of focus is what keeps them from spiraling off into jam-band noodling or shrinking down into twee Etsy-folk curiosity. Mumford may be marketed and consumed as an alternative to four-on-the-floor Day-Glo EDM glitz, but that rhythmic focus gives them a secret connection to house music’s heartbeat the same way that Rudd gave AC/DC their connection to disco. It’s what turns their old-timey rambles into anthems.
In an excellent Stereogum piece a few months ago, Chris DeVille traced the cultural genealogy of Mumford and all the blowing-up post-Mumford bands out there, showing how much they owe to the twin pillars of the Avett Brothers and the Decemberists. The Decemberists have always done a few things well, but they’ve also always bugged the shit out of me. And here we have a band that’s found massive commercial success by burning off all of the Decemberists’ handcrafted-Broadway excesses, piling on the bombast, giving it a beat, and making a couple of other key adjustments. Instead of Colin Meloy’s reedy dweeb-whine, they’ve got a singer with an absolute cannon of a barrel-chested bleat. And though Mumford & Sons indulge in their own obnoxious literary-reference games, they never bash you over the head with erudite whimsey the way the Decemberists do. They’ve effectively taken apart the Decemberists’ entire steez and rebuilt it into something with a simple, direct appeal. I have to respect it.
Of course, I can understand the general indie-rock annoyance of Mumford & Sons; they do plenty of annoying shit. They dress like assholes. They write vague and portentous lyrics that hold up to absolutely no scrutiny. This may be strawmanning, but their popularity seems to bespeak a deeply problematic white-people longing for a Depression-era simplicity that probably never existed. When he drops an f-bomb on the chorus of “Little Lion Man,” Marcus Mumford sounds a little too proud of himself, the same way Thom Yorke once sounded too proud of his own f-bomb on “Creep.” And it’s not really his fault, but Marcus’s marriage to Carey Mulligan is enough to piss off anyone who’s seen Drive a couple of times. (Would Marcus bust somebody’s head to the white meat for Carey? Huh? Would he? Then he doesn’t deserve her!) But as Mumford & Sons prepare to dominate this weekend’s Grammys and headline an assload of festivals this summer, it’s worth noting that the fundamentals of their big-tent uplift are strong.
Their style may be limited and reductive and willfully naive, but they play the hell out of it. Virtually every one of their tracks has a grand, dramatic, clothes-rending, chest-beating climax; it’s their equivalent of the Skrillex bass-drop. But when you let those climaxes do their work on you, they can be massively effective and satisfying things. And when a band hits that same sweet spot again and again, maybe it’s time to stop dismissing them.