What does "Only Love" by Mumford & Sons mean?
The Lyrics Meaning of "Only Love"
In "Only Love," Mumford returns to the spiritual questions about faith that he began asking in "Believe." Musically, gentle piano and mere hints of electric guitar make up most of this song until 2:51 when the drums and guitar kick in. The song is a mix of gentleness and power and, as always for Mumford & Sons, vulnerability.
The song is a search for God and companionship that concludes that "only love" will suffice, a love that Mumford believes God can provide. The song is appropriate to Mumford's 28 years as it also briefly details some of Mumford's own coming-of-age. The song is powerful and meaningful and takes a break from Wilder Mind's usual romance-focused songs. "Only Love" is beautiful, soul-searching, and deep enough that it will take listeners a few times through for the song's full depth to become clear.
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Mumford begins the song in a dark and dangerous place: "Loneliness." He sings, " I was stuck to the spot without a friend / Alone again." He's abandoned, but he wasn't always alone. Later parts of "Only Love" suggests that the "again" could refer to him having once left God and him now wanting to return.
The next stanza of the first verse develops Mumford's longing to be loved and in companionship with someone: "And I hunger, and I thirst / For some shiver / For some whispered words / And the promise to come." He needs the slightest hint that someone is with him. He wants to hear someone talk to him and to promise constancy or loyalty.
If this song truly is about God, this "promise to come" could be a promise of love or of future peace. It could even be, depending on Mumford's personal theology, a subtle implication of Christ's second coming. (According to a Rolling Stones interview from 2013, "he's never doubted the existence of God," but his exact beliefs are unknown, possibly even by him, his interview suggests.)
In the chorus, Mumford sings, "And you saw me low / Alone again." He knows that God remembers him and remembers how God was able to take care of him last time: "Didn't they say that only love will win in the end?" Mumford recognizes the power of love and hints that he wants to feel God's love again.
In the second verse, he continues singing directly to God, acknowledging that he, Mumford, has made mistakes: "I didn't fool you, but I failed you." In conversation, Friend-from-Wisconsin Jessica suggested to me that "Mumford can't fool God, but he failed him by his behavior and lack of faith." I agreed, realizing that Mumford has switched from complaining of loneliness to acknowledging his own guilt. He's the one who's made the mistake here, and he realizes that he's "made a fool out of" or betrayed God's love. Interestingly, he ends this stanza with "[a]nd a younger heart" suggesting, perhaps, that he's also made a fool out of himself.
The imagery of youth is supported in the next stanza when Mumford sings, "And I rage, and I rage." He needs help, and he's desperate for it, but he's not sure how to find it though he thinks that "perhaps [he] will come of age / And be ready for you." He wants to be mature for God and to feel worthy, an idea reminiscent of 2 Timothy 2:15, which says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed . . ." While "Only Love" is more focused on the companionship and love Mumford wants, the second verse still is suggestive of a striving to "not need to be ashamed."
The song ends with the chorus repeated twice. The last line, "Didn't they say that only love will win in the end," serves as the perfect summary of this song. Mumford is lonely, but he knows to rely on love and "love only" as he waits to be saved from his own darkness.
As for the role of the music in developing the song's meaning, Friend-from-Wisconsin Jessica says, "God has seen him low, at his worst, but love always wins in the end. And that is giving Mumford hope, which is heard through the music, as the song starts very dark and sad, but [finishes] more upbeat and hopeful at the end." As the song progresses and Mumford realizes that God still does love him, he gains strength and resolution.
Is there a chance this song is about a girl?
Genius.com thinks so, but the users there, while very helpful, are often prone to quickly assume that most God-focused songs are about romantic relationships.
In this case, I disagree.
One "explainer" of "Only Love" writes, "He longs to find his partner in life, and eventually make a promise to that person that he will be hers until the end of time, if she will be his." However, the person that Mumford is singing to is never suggested to be female or human. This user is more accurate when he/she writes, "He craves the words 'I love you,' coming from someone meaningful." Mumford does want love, and he wants it from God.
The proof is in a few phrases that imply Christian meaning: "the promise to come" rings of 2 Peter 3:4, and the "hunger," the "thirst," and the mention of how "you saw me low" sound like Matthew 25:35-39. A greater proof is probably in the lack of romantic language in the song. Mumford wants "a friend," not a lover. He thirsts for a "shiver" and "some whispered words," not an embrace, which suggested a romantic relationship in "Tompkins Square Park."
While the song does have phrases and words that could be interpreted as being about a woman, a God-centered interpretation makes the explanation more easy and fits the lyrics better.
What do you think "Only Love" is about? Is it about God or a woman? What do you think Mumford is trying to say? And why does he believe "only love will win in the end"?