Sophie Caldecott hails the hit new band whose lyrics could be lifted from Deus Caritas Est
The connection between the Pope, Shakespeare and one of the most popular new bands of the summer is not immediately obvious. It was a grey April morning earlier this year, and I was shaking the rain apologetically from my umbrella as I arrived late to an essay hand-back session, when the link between the incongruous three occurred to me. My Shakespeare tutor was excited about my essay; I had focused upon an obscure passage in Much Ado About Nothing, she said, that few people ever considered important enough to mention, let alone use as a hinge for the main argument of their essay. At this point, I had to own up.
The credit for the original angle of my exploration of the theme of love in Shakespeare’s work didn’t belong to me, but rather to the band I had been listening to while writing the essay: Mumford & Sons. After a moment's hesitation, I asked my tutor if she would mind if I played her a song on YouTube. She was surprised, but moved aside so that I could search for what I wanted on her computer. We sat back and listened with widening grins on our faces to Mumford & Sons’ song “Sigh No More”; not only was this brilliantly crafted and beautiful music, we agreed enthusiastically, but it was also intelligent and profound lyric-writing.
What excites and fascinates me most about Mumford & Sons’ music is the discussion they enter into about love. “Sigh No More” picks up on Shakespeare’s idea of the giddy, changeable affections of man in his light-hearted masterpiece, going on to claim that “there is a design, an alignment, a cry” within our hearts “to see the beauty of love as it was made to be”. In Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, he describes how at the “heart of the Christian faith” lies the fact that “God is Love”, and, as the image of God, our design, our “destiny”, is bound up with, and from, love. The connection between the Pope, Shakespeare and Mumford & Sons is that they all see and acknowledge the damage we can do to one another when we stray from the original meaning and purpose of love, but they do not despair, because of the fundamental goodness at the core of creation. They point us back to the thing we strayed from, but never cease to long for: a love which, as Mumford & Sons say, “will not betray you, dismay or enslave you”, but will “set you free to be more like the man you were made to be”.
Once you start reading Mumford & Sons’ lyrics alongside the Pope’s writings, the parallels begin to emerge so swiftly that it is hard to stop comparing them. “I know my call despite my faults and despite my growing fears,” the music declares; our calling is to overcome sin and fear and to encounter God in the “realism” of love, Pope Benedict tells us in Deus Caritas Est. In one song, Mumford & Sons express a sense of yearning for “the truth which will refresh my broken mind”, and in another they repeat the refrain: “lead me to the truth and I will follow you with my whole life.” God’s truth revealed in Christ, Pope Benedict says in Spe Salvi, is “not merely a communication of things that can be known”, but “is one that makes things happen and is life-changing”. It is, in other words, truth which has the power to refresh, truth which is well worth the dedication of our whole lives.
Since I first saw Mumford & Sons play last September at a small gig in London the band have gone from being niche – the well-kept secret of nu-folk lovers – to mainstream. The fact that the band was the favourite and most anticipated act at huge music festivals at Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds gives some idea of the band’s current popularity and success. Their songs may quote Shakespeare and even reference Steinbeck, but their varied and passionately devoted fan base proves that you don’t have to be a literature geek to appreciate their music. In fact, one of the most astonishing things about it is its sheer accessibility; everyone who listens to it finds something that connects with their own experience, the songs somehow managing to vocalise things we all feel but can’t always express.
This is an undeniably bizarre cultural phenomenon; friends of mine who profess to hate Christianity and all it stands for love Mumford & Sons. Perhaps it is the fact that, although their music is filled with Christian imagery, they are not a “Christian band”, that they communicate through poetry and not through sermons, that allows their essentially theological lyrics to speak for themselves. Standing in a crowd of people, shoulders touching and hands raised high, singing along to the lyrics “awake my soul, you were made to meet your maker” at a Mumford & Sons concert is to plunge unexpectedly into the realms of worship. It is to feel your heart expand with joy and divine awe within your chest, while at the same time clutching a beer. “This is what I believe!” I want to shout, “Just this, pure and simple!” But instead I stamp my feet and nod my head to the music, glancing around me with a smile. Let the music do the talking.