The opinions expressed below are expressly stated to be the personal opinion of Caitlin Cristin White. In no way do I claim them to be facts. However, I think they’re pretty good.
Music Critic Game: Hubris Fail
Guess what? Music doesn’t exist on a good versus bad scale like we so desperately want it to and sometimes convince ourselves it does. It doesn’t and cannot exist amidst the world of fact and truly objective measures. Isn’t that why most of us are drawn to it anyway? Music isn’t truth nor is it lie, it’s music and that’s why we love it. A rating system is a made up thing to make the lives of lazy writers easier, to allow for less thinking and more smugness, to allow for less showing and more telling of the writer’s own musical knowledge. Music has, and always will, exist within communities, serving different purposes and offering different touchstones. However, to say it doesn’t exist within gradients of talent, purpose and inspiration would be foolish.
But where, oh please tell me where, is the fatal flaw in Mumford and Sons’ second release Babel? It’s not in the record, so that offers one other option. Who is it that decides now what is manufactured, what is earnest, and when feelings themselves becomes fake and machine-made? Has music criticism reached such a zenith that it is now down to individual journalists who possess this divining power of determination? Can they see clearly into the artist’s hearts now? Even artists who were raised and continue to exist in communities these critics have never been a part of, or really, have ever been exposed to? Is this matter of the heart now an issue upon which writers only can divine, or is it only the “good” writers who are allotted this skill? At what point is this album not excellently played well-delivered bluegrass-lite? At what point did Mumford even pretend to be anything other than that?
Has it reached this level of cynicism – that we’d rather happily agree with one review we’ve read than try to listen to an album ourselves? That we would sometimes agree with this review before even listening to the album? It seems it has. We’re so jaded, we’re so uninspired, we’re so apathetic that the line “If you believe in me, I’ll still believe” is rejected as utterly impossible to process tripe. As if the power of another human being believing in your dreams, your personhood and your life isn’t still one of the most striking and monumental things that humans as sentient beings are able to do for one another. As if no one has done this for us? As if no one has imbued us with impossible courage strictly based on their faith in our hearts? That now, hearing a line like this, the primary thought that occurs is “this isn’t true emotion.”
As if, even through my writing this piece, you will question my intelligence and scoff at my attempt, as if disagreement lessens the keenness of my ear, weakens the grasp you may have thought I had on the wrist of music culture. As if my voice, stating what I love, this record, and my support for it, could be mocked and this mocking would be meaningful and affect my life on the levels of career, friends and power?
As if after knowing me for even the space of half hour you think that could possibly matter to me more than speaking my mind and defending an innocent album against another concocted music criticism deathtrap? What are you doing? Why are you so scared for the internet to change, and the world to exist in drawings very different from your own? Have you begun taking it out on the art itself? You’ve betrayed your role as critic and abandoned your post as cultural rudder. It is disconcerting, it’s pitiable, it’s sad.
“You hold your truth so purely / You swerve not through the minds of men” the opening lyrics of “Whispers in the Dark” could be a description of the critics who sweep this album under the rug. Permeated with influences from Mumford’s Christian upbringing, how could it be anything but bromides?
Anyone who says that every song on this album sounds the same is clearly just not even listening to the record. Which is fine, but it would be nice to hear the more clearly elucidated thoughts of well-versed rock critics about what musically and specifically pushes Babel into the shunned category of Worst New Music? Instead of a paragraph of lyrics presented without even satirical analysis or two name droppings of British musicians that many argue make music far more boring than Mumford’s. Instead of a snide history lesson about Marcus’ upbringing in the church and a jab at Dylan’s “Christian” phase that critics love to snark at? Instead of a studied glance at a private school education that completely stamps out the ability to make “correct” folk music.
A paragraph of lyric quotations is now allowable as ample evidence for a critique? Picking the most mundane lyrics out of any album released in 2012 would yield the same result. Human beings recycle words, no one more so than the poet, no one more so than the songwriter.
Babel Itself: Why People Like It
This is where it gets weird to me because critics are complaining that all the songs sound the same… and what? Are they simply not listening to the album? Does the appearance of the same instruments suddenly, just now, invoke the idea of sameness and sameness has now become one of the worst features an album has ever possessed? “Ghosts That We Knew” and “Not With Haste” stay well below the high tide level that many of the other tracks reach, marked with lightly played mandolins fringed around the edges. The warm tones of “Lover of the Light” and “I Will Wait” are anthems, both based on hopeful messages whose very optimism is argued as manufactured for no factual reason. Is joy now sold only as a product? It isn’t allowed to simply exist in musical form? It couldn’t be this emotion itself that drove the sales into record-breaking figures?
Because, finally, in some cases, it isn’t the intellectual after all, but “the people” who know. In moments of completely media mayhem, when culture begins to wear out the ways it understands itself, when the young are too young to know enough and the old are too out of touch to understand the new, there’s no middle ground only confusing opposites. But in times like these, as Marcus and his band soars past Bieber on the charts, I feel proud. Perhaps the ordinary civilian non-music-writer-human has finally seen past the major label layer cakes of frosted bullshit, and has seen past you too, you ivory tower encased scholar eating your own opinions for breakfast and tapping your toe in rhythm as non-thinkers chant them back.
Ordinary people, those without encyclopedic knowledge of every unreleased vinyl pressed in only 200 copies, hear the sound of well-made music saturated with hope, marked with consistency and crowned with humility. Ordinary people without pressuring self-awareness that the records they talk about, buy or dislike will influence hundreds of reader, they do what they always do – ordinary people buy music that speaks to them and happily listen to it.
Did You Say Christian?
The backlash of critical venom over this record also points to another issue within the zeitgeist of contemporary music writing – the seeming inability to tolerate much that has even an inkling of Protestant implications embedded within it. There is an idea, with many good qualifiers to support it, that any contemporary art with a capital “C” Christian slant will unquestionably be terrible. I would never be the one to deny that a multitude of pseudo-art emerging from pockets of this community is some of the most awful stuff in existence. However unnecessarily applying that prejudice to a piece of art because of a heritage fraught with errors is the type of error that culture specifically established the role of critic in order to avoid.
Anyone who was raised in the type of Vineyard-Vibe-Protestant-Worship-Based-Church that Mumford sprang from (I was) recognizes a number of stylistic elements that he clearly took from his upbringing. What I, as one raised in this environment will also be able to attest to, is how far beyond this original setting Marcus has taken his music. He has specifically gleaned the best features from this musical tradition while expanding his lyrics outside of purely worship-centric topics and individuated them – all while maintaining a lamenting tone that speaks, clearly, to a great number of people within modern culture. The self-consciousness of failure that this religious/spiritual culture brings to the forefront feels even more unique within a completely self-centric secular culture, but could it be this aspect that is also drawing people in? Doesn’t constantly thinking only about oneself and trying to consistently portray oneself as amazing get exhausting? Isn’t it so nice for once to hear someone talking honestly, candidly, nakedly about how they fucked up? Fucked up beyond all belief? But that there was still somewhere to go after this? Not saying that everyone goes to the same place, not saying that everyone goes to CHURCH after this or to GOD, just saying that in life there are valleys of despair but that life doesn’t end there. That life goes back up, that a dawn breaks over these dark periods, that we end up climbing back up from terrifying low depths and songs about this don’t have to be fake because they talk about this.
The album itself? Good. Not brilliant, not a life changer. But certainly not tripe. Certainly not deserving to be uttered with the disdain that these paragons of musical taste have reserved for Nickelback, a band that is their definition of absolute zero if we were talking in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow connotations.
But Are They Good?
They are of the same ilk as Of Monsters And Men, the shout-folk riot that broke out of Iceland early this year, or the finger-picking Fleet Foxes, the country-swooning of the Avett Brothers. They aren’t trying to be Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, or even Dylan, they know they aren’t. It’s time to stop this endless leaning in the hallway of the past – the foolishness of looking back has finally played itself out like a top that lost its final spin.
Not everyone in 2012 is, or need be, say Ariel Pink who envelops us in endless post-modern philosophies, twists words themselves until we aren’t sure we know what stand for anymore. This is the trend of those changing the face of music today I’d say, and it is pretty fucking brilliant. But not all artists are called to be the ones changing the very medium within which they operate. And I for one, would rather hear lyrics from Mumford than lyrics from Lady Gaga or from Bieber. I have more faith and more respect for members of a country that invests in the harmonies and mandolins and simple faith of Babel than the final emptiness of pop music made by and for teenagers that touts sex and other vapid specters emotion.
I’m reminded of a piece I read on We Listen For You in which the author questions the prevalence of almost unlistenable music in light of the new Animal Collective album. Not everything needs to be hard to understand to be good, meaningful art. Sometimes the simplest phrase is enough, the quaintest couplet evokes enough spirit to inspire or preserve listeners.