As a passionate hater of inane small talk yet still a decidedly gregarious conversationalist about certain topics, my go-to move upon meeting someone new is to ask them about their music taste. “What’s your favorite band?” I’ll say. If my interlocutor responds with something along the lines of, “Oh don’t make me pick just one,” I know we’ll be friends. On the other hand, the worst answer I can receive is, “I really love Mumford and Sons.”
“What, Peter?” they’ll surely ask in exasperation. “With all those music t-shirts you wear and that patchy beard you grow and shave in irregular intervals throughout the year, you seem like a total Mumford and Sons guy.”
Well, I’m not. Sure, Marcus Mumford’s got some decent pipes (even if he can sometimes be what my friend calls “a heaver”), but the music is just so…much. It seems like they’re scared you’re going to forget who you’re listening to, so they just shove it down your throat. That’s fine if you’re a pop-punk band, but then what’s with all the banjo? Your guy doesn’t need to strum it with more ferocity than a boy scrubbing his shirt to get out a stain before his mom gets home. We get it: you also saw O Brother, Where Art Thou.
But this isn’t an anti-recommendation of Mumford and Sons. It’s a recommendation of Bear’s Den, the band that Mumford and Sons would sound like if they weren’t so annoying. More specifically, their 2014 debut Islands is a real gem.
So, what makes the two artists similar? On the most superficial level, both are bands made of white British millennials playing what is ostensibly described as folk-rock, a term bastardized to include any white men singing in harmony or fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, however occasionally. In this case, both feature consistently strong vocals and predominantly acoustic instruments, their structurally simple songs often reinforced by some degree of a Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound. What makes Bear’s Den different, though, is the combination of their taste and their soul.
Take Islands’ opening track, “Agape.” Sure, it opens with a plucky banjo, but the banjo quickly layers into the other instruments as Andrew Davie starts singing about his fear of losing love. There are drums, but they’re subtle, not falling under the curse of post-I and Love and You Avett Brothers; instead, the guitar provides the real rhythmic propulsion. The vocal harmonies aren’t anything you haven’t heard before, but they’re delivered with such grace and passion that you nonetheless marvel at them. When the song swells towards the end, you wonder whether this band, simple as they may seem, might be something truly special.
The gentle acoustic fingerpicking amid a low keyboard ambience that opens “Above the Clouds of Pompeii” builds throughout the song. The song concludes with a trumpet-embellished vocal refrain whose harmonies go out with a bang. “Bad Blood,” the album’s closer, makes equally effective use of a similar ascending structure. Unlike a band such as Mumford and Sons trying to force any old song into an anthemic mold, Bear’s Den give themselves the liberty to play organically, without pressure or hurry; the resulting songs become themselves effortless anthems.
The record is not without its darker sides. The album’s crown jewel, in fact, is a darkly wonderful song called, “Isaac.” The narrator is the Hebraic Abraham who is confessing to his son both his confusion that “a Father’s love [God’s love] must be earned” through Isaac’s sacrifice and his sadness at therefore having to see Isaac’s “head pressed against the stone.” The song is propelled by a banjo, but this banjo eschews both pluck and ferocity in favor of a sorrowfully haunting, almost sinister sound. The chorus seems to be directed towards the Hebrew God Himself, as harmonies reminiscent of a monastic choir repeatedly intone the words, “I’m gonna give all my love to you.” Songs like this one go beyond just a nice harmony or a charming instrument when all the elements combine to take us momentarily out of our world into another, one where nothing exists but the music.
I’ve always agreed with my old high school teacher when he says, “It’s not that Mumford and Sons are that bad. It’s just that the music they imitate is so much better.” Even with all my performative whining, I have to admit that Mumford isn’t the worst band out there—I’ll even concede that “Cold Arms” is a really good tune. But I bet that even Mumford fans would have to agree that the core of their music is inherently mimetic. Neither
Mumford nor Bear’s Den for that matter pushes their folky base into something new or different, something uniquely their own. But Bear’s Den refuses to insist on its music by shoving it down your throat. Instead, the band invites you into their music gently, asking you just to give it a chance. Before you know it, you’ll be living under the spell of their driving guitars and graceful harmonies, and you’ll be totally hooked.