It takes a certain madness to attempt to put a literary masterpiece by John Steinbeck into a song. It takes brilliance to capture that story and share it in a compelling poem, put that poem to music, and let it move deeply within the hearts of listeners. Mumford & Sons does it twice in their debut album, Sigh No More.
If you hadn’t yet heard of this rising folk-rock band from Britain, you will be hearing a lot more after their Grammy performance last night with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers (video below). While Mumford & Sons failed to land the award Best New Artist (at least they didn’t lose to Justin Bieber), they get a humble nod from us at Recovering Evangelical; a thanks, really, for music that holds a beauty and eloquence with the power to cut to your soul, draw out the pain and darkness of your own story, yet inspire you to hope and to hold onto the good.
In the song Timshel, a word discussed in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, frontman Marcus Mumford sings softly, “And you have your choices. And these are what make man great, his ladder to the stars.” He ponders our ability to leave behind our past, who we’re expected to be, and choose to become someone new. Later he sings for a character from Grapes of Wrath crying out against oppression and confessing to acts of vengeance, meanwhile turning folk-rock into a rock that almost makes you want to head-bang in Dust Bowl Dance.
It’s not just the Steinbeck-drawn songs that hold miracles of writing. While some of their songs carry an ode to the Creator of the Universe, they manage to ponder Biblical themes like love and grace without a shred of triteness. Instead, they come with a recognition of the struggle in this world. They honestly and authentically acknowledge the tension of light and darkness within our own hearts, all the while keeping hope alive.
In their intro song, Sigh No More, they exclaim, “Love it will not betray, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free. Be more like the man you were made to be.” They proclaim “I’ll find strength in pain and I will change my ways. I’ll know my name as it’s called again,” in The Cave. They wrestle with the pain and suffering of love in Winter Winds, and confess, “Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think, and yet it dominates the things I see,” in Roll Away Your Stone. Somehow they demand, “Awake my soul, for you were made to meet your maker,” without making you feel like you are at a worship service, in Awake My Soul.
Finally, it’s only after this exploration of love and longing, of free will and choice, of pain and struggle, of oppression and vengeance, that Mumford is free to consider life after death. With this honest reflection throughout the album, Mumford honors the struggle of life, and in After the Storm, can boldly cry out:
And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.