A Shabby Effort

I first heard Mumford and Sons on the radio, and they were getting airplay because they had a song with the word “fuck” in it. When I heard it, I thought that this was interesting, not because they used the word – God knows I use it often enough – but because cursing had somehow become an emblem of outsider status. The song was “Little Lion Man” and the singer articulates that he had “fucked it up this time,” taking responsibility for a failure that had messed things up but good.

To me, what was interesting was not so much the word “fuck” in a popular song – hiphop has certainly had a stronghold on that for over twenty years – but that “fuck” was presented as an emblem of authenticity by a white band – a British white folk band. I could hear the banjo, I could get the emphasis on stringed instruments. I could tell that there was no Autotuner. It was clear that this was a band that played its own instruments. There was musical talent at work here. I really kind of liked this song, though it was hard to place why. Unfortunately, the more I listened to it, the worse it went. In listening to the song, I was struck by how much emphasis seemed to be on the “Fuck.” It was as if the cursing was somehow supposed to be the mark of street cred. For a British folk band, this seemed a little odd. Why were they trying so hard to be “authentic”? Why the need to try? Why not just “be” authentic without using the word “fuck” to signal your own authenticity?

Then came “The Cave,” the follow-up song that became even more a barnstormer hit. This song is likewise propelled by the acoustic instrumentation of the band. It’s propulsive, passionate, insistent. The music moves up to a stirring crescendo that is hard to resist. Again, the acoustic instrumentation builds to a crescendo that is impossible to follow. It’s powerful musically. The problem with it? The amazing banality of the lyrics:

It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Cause I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours and I’ll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s land

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Sigh. It’s stunning just how many cliches one writer can work into a text, isn’t it? “Refresh my broken mind”? Sheesh. When I first heard this, I was excited that a lyricist for a popular band had read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” They allude to the “sirens”? Someone’s read the Greeks! But it’s never that simple, is it? What has driven me crazy for a while now about this song is the image (or the notion) of someone choking on a noose around his neck. I’m pretty sure that “choke” isn’t the right word here. “Strangle” would work quite well. “Choking” refers to something inside the throat, but a noose isn’t on the inside of the throat, it’s something that goes around the neck. Why’s it matter to me? Because the value in good writing, in worthwhile writing, lies in how hard you strive to make it work, how hard you work to make it make sense. This band just plain didn’t. It aspires to profundity – my God, the first couple of verses of the song are amazingly overwritten! – but ultimately the lyrics are just plain lazy.

If you take much time at all to look at the lines of the song, most of them don’t make much sense. It’s rather frustrating. Just take a look at the first two or three verses. What’s actually going on there? I’d be curious to know, and I just can’t tell. The video doesn’t help, by the way. The band – clearly more commercially successful now that “Little Lion Man” has become a hit – rides around on scooters while a second band plays their instruments. This second band is comprised of four men who are of a different nationality – which nationality isn’t made clear. They are colored, third-worldish, imagined as downtrodden. (Part of the Arab Spring? Not sure.) They wear the clothes of a marching band and play the instruments full throttle while the boys in the actual band ride around on their scooters and lipsynch the lyrics.

It’s not really a proud moment. The band looks like a bunch of dilettantes into something vaguely international while celebrating their own commercial success. And while the video as a whole has the sense of being politically engaged, it never actually goes into politics and remains only allusive, and therefore toothless.

All in all a rather shabby effort. To be authentic is to be yourself, no matter the cost. That’s not my sense of this band, nor these songs.