Everyone’s a critic – but everyone worth listening to is a constructive critic
I received a rather sheepish text from my colleague recently – he’s someone with a similar music taste to me (though he likes a far more broad and diverse range of stuff). Here it is…
Now, first things first, it actually WAS my birthday that day. So happy birthday to me (blows tiny imaginary party horn). Secondly, I feel I should point out at this juncture that my colleague regularly goes to watch new artists and bands, and introduces us to them at work by adding them to his Spotify playlist (he’s like the office DJ). The reason I’m telling you this is that I want to get across just how informed my colleague is when it comes to new music – he’s a decent judge; a solid arbiter of good taste. He often sends me suggestions of things to listen to, and I almost always approve of them. So when he says he’s enjoying the new Mumford and Sons album (Delta), he means it. And so do I!
And yet – why did he feel the need to begin his declaration with the words, ‘Don’t tell anyone…’? Is it really that embarrassing to like a Mumford and Sons album? Why is it so shameful to think that this indie rock band – winner of six Grammy Awards and a Brit Award for best album for Sigh No More, which also bagged a Mercury Prize nomination – are so unfashionable that enjoying their music is akin to enjoying the same music as your mum? Is the reputation of Mumford and Sons really that bad? And if so, is it deserved?
Not the critics’ choice
After enjoying great success with their aforementioned 2009 debut Sign No More, the band released a follow-up (Babel) in 2012 in the same bluegrass, folk rock style. However, they then used the opportunity that their success had afforded them to ditch the banjos and produce Wilder Mind in 2015. It seems they’d finally made the album they really wanted to make – which was a total departure from the previous two records. Unfortunately, it was a rather bland indie rock effort – and didn’t really feature any songs that rivalled the better elements of their first two releases (particularly their debut – which I think is really quite good).
Their latest album, Delta, was released in November this year – and it recently topped the Billboard 200 in the USA (their third consecutive album to do so). There are undoubtedly strong parallels with its predecessor. However, I believe there is also more depth, more quality and more interesting songs. My view, though, is not shared by most of the critics. Laura Snapes of The Guardian gave it two stars out of five and said it was “pure Spotifycore, a genre mess reaching for pan-playlist appeal”. Jon Dolan of Rolling Stone churlishly harks back to their previous appeal: “The Mums were much more likable back when they were pretending to be coal miners who churned their own butter,” he writes. “Compared to this stuff, that was a decent look.” And then there’s Joshua Copperman of Spin, who speaks of the “bloat” of this new album and its ‘lack of nuance’. “On Delta, the scope of Mumford and Sons’ ambitions is far wider than their abilities as songwriters,” he says. “The result here is an hour-long slog with only a few brief realisations of their old potential before the next crescendo hits.”
There are plenty of other reviews which are far more scathing – I actually picked these three because they’re three of the sources I have the most respect for when it comes to album reviews. Plus – they ALL find something nice or complimentary to say about something on the album. Which is an important aspect of criticism which I’ll come back to later. And so I appreciate, understand and respect the position of all three publications. However, I’m still of the opinion that Delta is pretty decent. And I know full well there are underlying (well, actually pretty overt) negative sentiments towards Mumford and Sons, and other acts like them, which inform a lot of the ire and criticism which comes their way. Let’s explore…
There is a brilliant article on Mumfords (meeting Canadian right-wing psychology professor Jordan Peterson) which illustrates the point I’m referring to above quite beautifully. It was shared with me by my boss, who also has a wide-ranging and diverse taste and knowledge of music. The article appears in The Quietus and is by music writer Jazz Monroe. In it, he basically rips into Mumfords for the lack of character in their music, and their questionable (at best) cultural re-appropriation of music which doesn’t really relate to who they are in any genuine way – thus giving the impression of a bunch of phonies exploiting a meaningful movement for, well, success, money, etc.
“The basic principle is that it is undignified, in a developed society, to have expensively educated white men play dust bowl dress-up for our entertainment, writes Monroe. “The plunder of American roots music has gone quite far enough. Is the glitzy repackaging of working-class art by the rich ever innocent? Perhaps, but it is never good.”
Now, I will soon attempt to state what I think Mumford and Sons actually do well, but I can’t really defend this aspect of their being. There was something which always felt amiss about their ‘novelty act’ factor. As Monroe later adds: “Sometimes you unearth beauty. Sometimes you find serpentry. And that is why it was always okay to ridicule Mumford and Sons.”
And so, it is not just the lack of authenticity in the band’s music that Monroe takes umbrage with, but the sinister nature of their project – to basically use “bluegrass fetishism” to become popular/rich/successful.
The good, the bad and the anodyne
I’ve referred to the likes of U2 and Coldplay in a previous article on my appreciation of the TV show Friends, and it’s probably worth pointing out again here that the nature of Mumfords’ existence and how they’re perceived evokes similar feelings to those bands. I would also add Kings of Leon to that bracket now – I adored their first two albums (Youth and Young Manhood & Aha Shake Heartbreak) and really liked the third, but the bland, easy-listening records they’ve produced since Because of the Times (record No.3) are such a disappointment compared to what they’d previously shown they were capable of.
But I still like listening to newer Kings songs occasionally – I still think Coldplay are a good band, who’ve produced some brilliant albums. And I genuinely thought U2’s 2014 effort Songs of Innocence was as good as Joshua Tree or anything else they’ve produced – despite it’s rather sinister surreptitious iTunes immaculate conception release saga! The point is – can we look beyond the anodyne moments, the great successes and (slightly trickier) the questionable roots or misguided cultural appropriation of a band or artist’s music and still find value in what they produce? Can we just listen to a song and enjoy it for what it is – almost in a Husserlian phenomenological kind of way where we bracket off all the superfluous (or perhaps not so superfluous) stuff which gives it meaning? Is the Mumford and Sons project, with its strong fanbase and wide appeal, still capable of producing genuinely quality music with heart and soul? Or can we just at least listen to their songs and go, ‘You know what – I really like listening to that song – and I don’t care who’s responsible for it’?
Light in the dark
Well, let me immediately address that question by saying that I loved Mumford and Sons’ debut album Sigh No More. I used to play the title track and album opener at open mic nights with an old flame and it always brings back lovely memories. Sigh No More (the song) is a belter which builds nicely and then catches fire with a rousing outro. The rest of the album is good – every song, as far as I’m concerned, but it has a few particular highlights. I remember watching them play this record live in a tent at Glastonbury and being genuinely moved by some of the darker numbers – White Blank Page, Thistle & Weeds, I Gave You All, Dust Bowl Dance, After The Storm – with Mumford and Sons, there really is light in the darkness. Sigh No More (the album) actually falls down (for me, anyway) on the annoyingly overplayed singles like the insufferable Little Lion Man.
And so on to Delta – Mumford and Sons’ second ambitious attempt at a deep, anthemic indie rock guitar/synth album. It’s not amazing – I’m a huge Radiohead fan and it doesn’t come close to rivalling their best work, for example. But it’s not bad, either – Woman, a smooth indie rambler with nice atmospheric falsettos, is the best song and well worth a listen. Beloved has one of those classic catchy Mumford singalong choruses and The Wild has a nice Sigur Ros style Coda to enjoy. Slip Away sounds like a song engineered by someone who has produced recent U2 albums (Paul Epworth) with its twinkly bells. But it also has a nice U2-like drive to it. Darkness Visible is an ambitious track. And is perhaps not pulled off entirely well. It feels like a newer Muse track, with its spoken word element. But the musical score is fantastic – very powerful.
Wild Heart sounds like another old Mumfords song again – it’s a gentle, stripped-back acoustic/piano track. Forever has a cheesy chorus, but still a nice anthemy new year feel. Not offensive. Not worth hating. Picture You, however, has that awful contemporary pop feel – it’s that weird synth effect which artists like Justin Bieber have used quite effectively in recent times. It sounds like a forced effort to be ‘hip’ and ‘with it’ and is the sort of thing a band like this should definitely try to avoid (in my opinion). Anyway, my overriding feeling is that this album is a solid 7/10 record with a few really good moments. And yet, one can’t help feeling that even if this band produced the most compelling release of 2018, the critics would still round on it. I’m not suggesting that what I’ve read is wrong – and as I previously mentioned, the reviews I referred to all said some constructive things, as well plenty of negative points. I just get the impression that with bands such as Mumfords, their fate is already sealed with the critics – and that doesn’t seem entirely fair.
Talented up-and-coming South Shields indie kid Sam Fender recently described Ed Sheeran’s music as “slightly reptilian”. “I don’t trust songs that can be played at a kid’s party and a club at the same time”, he said. “I just don’t think it’s right.” He probably has a point. But a good song is a good song. A collection of good songs is a good album. Should it matter how or where we listen to them? If you like something, surely it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks? If it’s good to you, surely that’s all that matters? Perhaps I’m being naive or gullible? Perhaps I’m being easily manipulated by darker capitalist forces? Perhaps this is exactly why we need critics – to fight against the tide of our anodyne-loving, reptilian, surreptitious overlords? Or Tories as they’re also known! Or perhaps a good song really is just a good song entirely dependant on who YOU are and what YOU like?
The art of finding value
So… Mumford and Sons – soul-stealing charlatans or just a bunch of blokes playing fairly dull indie? Culture-besmirching snakes or harmless anodyne indie rockers? Is Sigh No More something to treasure or trash? Is Delta worth listening to or not? What is great art? Is it Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Rodin? Or is it OK Computer, the Toy Story series and The Simpsons? I wrote in my Friends blog piece that it didn’t really matter to me what cultural relics had exalted status – I’ve read plenty of books which are supposed to be classic pieces of literature. Some of them – like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher In The Rye or Nineteen Eighty-Four – I loved. And others – like Heart of Darkness, Don Quixote and Ulysses – I wasn’t particularly fond of. I thought aspects of In Search Of Lost Time by Proust were amazing. But I would never read it again. I would, however, listen to Sigh No More. Or Delta.
Now, I know these things aren’t really comparable – but I guess what I’m trying to say is, I like both of those Mumford and Sons albums. I think there are plenty of good songs on both of them. And I don’t really care what the band look like – or what other people think about their music, their success or how they’ve achieved it. It brings me pleasure to listen to those albums and I’m not embarrassed about that. I don’t feel like I’m being duped either. I’ve watched the band live at festivals a few times and they’ve always put on a really good show – swapping instruments, creating a positive vibe and generally giving it their all.
Perhaps I’m a fool who’s easily led – maybe I’m a mindless drone who’s part of the problem. It might just be that my passive acceptance and appreciation of bands like Mumford and Sons is exactly why the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and disparity continues to grow between those in society who have all the wealth and power and those who have to wait six months for an important NHS operation because the system is buckling under its lack of funding.
All I know for sure is, my friend shared his thoughts on some music he liked and I reciprocated. We shared a connection, and ideas, and we now play some of those songs in the office. And we enjoy listening to them. And others do, too. Some people don’t like them so much. Some actually seem to hate them. But that’s okay, too. Because we don’t have to all like the same things. In fact, it’s good that we don’t – variety is the spice of life, after all. As long as we respect each other’s position and refrain from causing harm or injury to others, we are all free to make our own choices and assume our existential freedom and responsibility to be who we are.
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Genuinity
If you’ve ever read any of my previous work, you will have come across some of the philosophy of the great existentialist/ontologist/general cultural critics Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as a touch of Martin Heidegger. All three wrote on the weak nature of human beings to follow and be led – this was Kierkegaard’s crowd, Nietzsche’s herd and Heidegger’s public. And all three ideas have a similar sentiment – that it is all too easy for us to lose our own sense of personal will power and be led by the masses; to allow our individual self to be swept up and controlled by the wider group. And it is important when thinking about criticism, differences of opinion and individual, subjective taste, that we remember not to allow ourselves to be swayed by what others think. You have a will to power to choose your own path – to like what you like and be who you are. Do not allow anyone to prevent you from being your true self.
Again, if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you will be familiar with my concept of Genuinity. If not, you can read more about it here. It’s basically the idea that we all have a true self – a positive, life-affirming quality, sprinkled with feminine energy, led by the voice of one’s inner child. A thing with distinct and independent existence. Genuinity is your true self in its truest, most stripped-back form. Prior to the symbolic realm, reason, knowledge, understanding. And I believe that this essence draws us to one another – it connects us, and drives us to live and continue existing. It is Genuinity which drives our compulsion to be good and to do good. And I think it is important to remember that we need to let our Genuinity shine when it comes to criticism – because I do believe there is a place for it. It just needs to be constructive. Don’t just hate for the sake of hating – find some good things to say. There is always something positive to illuminate – you just need to look hard enough for it. And if not, perhaps suggest ways that you think it could be better – try to be helpful and supportive.
Nietzsche wrote about criticism – and by the age of 45 he’d written 15 books, yet he felt no-one had written even a moderately good review of them. He famously suggested in his 1874 essay On the Use and Abuse of History for Life: “The weakness of the modern personality comes out well in the measureless overflow of criticism.” One might suggest this weakness is stronger than ever in the condition of our contemporaneous postmodern condition – particularly with the advent and proliferation of the faceless and immediate social media. Everyone’s a critic these days – but unfortunately not everyone can also find something constructive to say. Now, of course, freedom of speech and expression is a positive thing to be cherished, protected and encouraged. But being nasty for the sake of it is not. So try to be constructive – find something nice to say when you’re being critical. Find some positives – don’t just get swept up by highlighting everything you think is wrong with something.
Intensity, authenticity and melancholy
Criticism in civilisation actually goes back a long way – all the way to the Ancient Greek Sophists, in fact. Anthony Kenny suggests in his book Ancient Philosophy: Volume I that the Sophists were among the first literary critics – it has quite a history, the desire to review, analyse and criticise. But it is with the great Danish existentialist Kierkegaard that I want to finish this blog – as he was a man who was intensely self-critical. Struggling by under his own dark cloud of guilt and anxiety, Kierkegaard lived in a constant tussle with his own conscience as he attempted to be a good Christian and cope with the burden of sin. His self-struggle ultimately destroyed him. And yet, for Kierkegaard, it was his passion and commitment to faith, to Christianity, which gave him his existential purpose. His intense belief gave his life meaning. For Kierkegaard, truth came from that passion, intensity and commitment. He appreciated the objective uncertainty of his belief in God, yet for Kierkegaard, his passion made belief in God an existential truth for him.
He was a brilliant thinker and a beautiful, talented writer, whose ideas on the human condition of anxiety are particularly compelling. And thus, he was quite a troubled fellow. He never married or had a family (like Nietzsche), and while there’s obviously nothing at all wrong with that, it’s probably fair to say he doesn’t come across as particularly contented either. But might Kierkegaard have been happier if he’d been a more constructive self critic? Perhaps if he’d given his Genuinity a chance to blossom, he might have experienced more happy moments in his life? Whether that was through marriage, a long-term partner, close friends, children, family or other connections, I can only speculate. But a little love goes a long way.
And yet, here’s the thing – would Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Radiohead, Nirvana (just some examples based on things I like) and countless other exponents of great genius and beauty have achieved their amazing work without a bit of misery? Or sadness? Or heartache? Or paranoia? Or fear? Or injustice? Or anger? Or rage? Or melancholy? I’m not so sure they would. At least, it wouldn’t really be the same. It’s just another of Kierkegaard’s classic irreconcilable paradoxes! There is an edge to artistic and cultural manifestations that are driven by sorrow, melancholy and rage – there is beauty, there is depth and there is raw humanity. There is soul.
And perhaps this is the problem with Mumford and Sons – this is the lack that Jazz Monroe was referring to. The reason they’ll never make an album as good as Radiohead is that they just don’t have in it them – their music doesn’t have that character; it’s missing that edge. Does that mean they can’t still write a good tune? No. Does it mean they can’t produce a good album? I don’t think so. But there is definitely a difference between a good album and a great one. Sigh No More is a good album – OK Computer is a great one.
We need criticism to fend off the anodyne and the beige sometimes. We need different opinions to keep things interesting. Just be sure to keep it constructive, be kind and be respectful. Mumford and Sons are still human beings. They still have families and friends. And personal lives. And problems. And they clearly work hard at what they do. So please don’t just write them off for the sake of it. Be constructive. Be nice.