The Music Club, 2012
Entry 7: Why are Mumford & Sons so popular?
Photograph by Simone Joyner/Getty Images.
Life Is Dynamic—now that’s a T-shirt slogan for 2012, Lindsay, full of steely truth and stubborn hope. Admire Frank Ocean even more for that. BTW, has he ever sampled “The Ocean”? Could be even better than his Coldplay jam. (More on classic rock in a moment.)
Ann, your experience watching fun.’s audience sing-along seems similar to mine at a recent CD-release show by that angelic Anglican folk-pop cyborg-siren Ellie Goulding, filled with suburban girls and fashion-forward boys who hollered the new songs as well as “Lights.” I was just as impressed by the bellowing, mixed-gender mosh-pit at a Japandroids show earlier this month (complete with crowd-surfers) and a 1 a.m. Skrillex club gig back in January that was also wildly participatory. It all drove home old punk-and-disco-schooled truths about demolishing audience/performer divisions. But it also pointed to something new in an era when musicians need to make the concert experience feel essential, since as we’re all noting, it’s the primary way musicians now get paid. (See the illuminating piece on Grizzly Bear by last year’s Clubber Nitsuh Abebe for one version of this reality.) Social media plays a roll in erasing those divisions too, I believe, in people’s minds. Let every voice be heard!
I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering if this is why shout-along-ready massed vocals continue to be all the rage, from Taylor Swift and fun. to Japandroids, Titus Andronicus, and Mumford & Sons. I found Mumford’s huge popularity (and their bible-tinted arena-folk versifying) pretty interesting, more so than their actual music. I spend a lot of time in an upstate New York college town, where this fall, Babel seemed everywhere: in shops, restaurants, and cars, with kids blasting it out their Toyota windows and mouthing the words. Growing up, I never sang in a choir (I was raised Catholic but just missed parochial school; Mom outvoted Dad on that one). But now I sing in a community chorus on occasion, and—not to get all new-agey—that joining of voices can be some healing and empowering shit. In this historical moment, it’s a telling vocal trend.
As for the aforementioned Skrillex set, it was kickin’, but too ADD jump-cutty for me to catch a groove and get lost in it. It was club music reimagined as a Michael Bay film, fireworks-filled like so much pop EDM but ultimately migraine-tedious. I’m more of a deep house/minimal techno guy—which is partly why, Jason, I’m also in thrall to Azealia Banks, whose 1991 EP was my favorite hip-hop record of the year. I thought the electro-house grooves by Machinedrum (North Carolina grandson of a pedal-steel guitarist!) and others were delicious—and, in sync with our theme, on the quiet side—recalling that sweet late-’80s/early-’90s moment when singles like “I’ll House You” and “Pump Up the Volume” posited a fantasy world where hip-hop homophobes and queer-friendly disco devotees all got down together, and a refreshing rewind to the proto-hip-hop era when words were as much dance-spurs as vehicles for self-centered expression. Banks’ rhymes do both, her style ferocious and her neck-snap delivery so post-Twista torqued I confess I needed Rap Genius to parse much of it.
Though she rapped both about cruising dudes and stealing your girlfriend—the clearly-articulated “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten” surely vies with Miguel’s “tell me that the pussy is mine” for 2012’s best vagi-centric hook—she was, like Ocean, another twentysomething artist defining herself beyond her (in this case bi-) sexuality. Pop gender roles seem to be getting interestingly fluid again; I thought it was a neat inversion that the outstanding rappers were women (Azealia, Nicki) and R&B singers were men (Frank, Miguel). Though not exclusively. Kendrick Lamar came with a mighty debut that we haven’t discussed yet, with the self-interrogating pre-12-Step narrative “Swimming Pools (Drank)” just one standout on the year’s consensus rap record. And thanks, Jason, for sending me back to Elle Varner’s debut; the way she works that grain in her voice is a wonder to behold. If Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops isn’t working up an old-timey cover of “Refill,” she should.
Meanwhile, it was touching to witness the pride and potency of rock’s aging gods and goddesses. At this point I find even the Stones poignant; I was one of few critics moved by Mick Jagger’s pointedly post-colonial SuperHeavy project last year, which inescapably seemed like a response to Keith Richards ridiculing his penis size. I failed to wrangle a golden ticket to see them this go-round, which I regretted a bit. But I did see Neil Young and Crazy Horse churn out two-plus hours of mighty, inspired, screaming, and yeah, trippy guitar wank in Brooklyn. In a year where Young released a memoir and two separate albums, one of which was very good indeed, you could only marvel at his stamina—not to mention that of Patti Smith, who opened for him in Brooklyn and made a pretty fine record herself this year. Bonnie Raitt made one of her best in a couple of decades, getting her guitar jams on, too—a demonstration of feminine potency and, like all good guitar wank, making a mortal claim on the infinite.
Still, no one bitch-slapped Father Time more fiercely this year than Dylan. Steeped in history and doomy prophesy, Tempest railed against the night, pushed knotty parables through a phlegmy death-rattle, grim, sometimes hilarious, and always down for a hook-up. “I can dress up your wounds with a blood-clotted rag/ I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag,” he testified on “Early Roman Kings,” fiddling while the empire burns around him.
I’d love to riff more on time here, with regard to the return of epic minimalism—the Swans’ mountainous 30-minute “The Seer,” the revival of Einstein On The Beach. But my time’s up, so I’ll save that and other thoughts for my final post.
Will Hermes is the author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, senior critic for Rolling Stone, and a longtime contributor to NPR's All Things Considered and the New York Times.