Mumford & Sons’s new album Wilder Mind is officially out! And the first song on the album is “Tompkins Square Park.” The song is almost upbeat compared to the early releases, but it slowly mellows out just like the relationship being sung about.

“Tompkins Square Park” is about a relationship that ends in Tompkins Square Park in New York City, the site, according to Wikipedia, of numerous riots over the past 150 years. The park served as a gathering place for artists (Allen Ginsberg lived nearby during the 1988 riots), bohemians, and the homeless. Due to gentrification, the park has lost some of its artsy vibe, but its legacy serves well as a backdrop for the difficult subject of Mumford & Sons’s new song.

[According to BBC News, Mumford doesn’t seem to be the primary writer on this song (just like with “Believe“), but his name will still represent the author since Mumford sings the words.]

“The Meaning”

The lyrics are fairly straightforward, but their implications are important for millennials. The song is about a relationship that Mumford feels is doomed to failure; the line “No flame burns forever” serves as a summary of what the song is about. Mumford and his romantic interest meet in the park and bemoan the fact that their romantic love for each other will never last.

Tompkins Square Park
Tompkins Square Park

Tompkins Square Park is the perfect symbolic location because it served as the location for riots in 1874 and 1988, and Mumford’s relationship, also, is in a similar state of upheaval. He plans to invite her to Tompkins Square Park to reminisce and end the relationship, an action fitting with the painful history of the park.

In verse 1, he sings, “Oh, babe, meet me in Tompkins Square Park / I wanna hold you in the dark / One last time / Just one last time.” This could be sexual or merely affectionate. And because the park (at least today-Monday) is only open until 5PM, this meeting will be sneaky and possibly risky.

He continues, “Oh, and, oh, babe, can you tell what’s on my tongue? / Can you guess that I’ll be gone? / With the twilight.” Mumford letting this girl go is just on the “tip of his tongue.” By morning, he will leave her in the park. Whether they will be talking or having sex until then is unexplained.

Present Day Tompkins Square Park
Present Day Tompkins Square Park

The central sentiment of the song comes in hook 1 when he sings, “But no flame burns forever, oh, no / You and I both know this all too well / And most don’t even last the night.” Mumford and the woman may have been used to relationships not working out, so they are willing to let this relationship go as well, assuming that it won’t work. Relationships that “don’t even last the night,” could be a reference to contemporary hook-up culture and one night stands. Even still, there is a little bit of doubt in Mumford’s mind when he sings, “they say they don’t [last more than one night],” suggesting that he may only be living out a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In verse 2, Mumford sings that he just wants to “hear [her] lie / One last time.” He doesn’t say what the lie is, but since they are in a romantic relationship, the lie is likely, “I love you,” a difficult thing to hear if one knows that it is a lie. But Mumford wishes to hear it anyway. And he’s told the lie himself: “I only ever told you one lie / When it could have been a thousand / It might as well have been a thousand.” Because the sentence “I love you,” is so powerful, he might as well have lied so many more times because the consequences of this particular lie will be devastating to both of them.Screen Shot of Mumford & Sons Website II

In hook 2, Mumford says that they could “talk it round and round.” The circle imagery suggests that he knows they will get nowhere, and so he concludes that they “could leave it out to die.”

In the bridge, Mumford explains his point-of-view: “I never tried to trick you babe / I just tried to work it out.” His way of working it out seems to have been believing that he loved her and talking with her. Unfortunately, he couldn’t convince himself, and sings, “But I was swallowed up by doubt.” He was too unsure of himself and his own intentions.

His final lament enhances his unsureness: “If only things were black and white / Cause I just want to hold you tight / Without holding back my mind.” He doesn’t understand the situation, but he knows that he does want to hold her. He claims to feel affection for her, but for him to show that affection, he has to hold “back [his] mind.” This suggests that he is attracted to her but that logic and reason suggest that they are not good for each other. It could also mean that the complications of the situation and relationship are too much for him, and even though he feels love for her, it’s too complicated and difficult.

Screen Shot of Mumford & Sons Album CoverThe philosophy of love and postmodernity

Would the last two generations, those 35+ years old, have ever told a story like Mumford’s song? Were they ever confused about being in love? If so, they’ve done a good job of hiding it. Unfortunately, thoughtful, mournful songs about lost love are far more prevalent with millennial songwriters.

The confusion that Mumford (age 28) and other young people may experience is due partially to growing up in a postmodern society. Postmodernism, as a theory of philosophy and art, holds that truth is difficult to know, proposes disregarding authority, and encourages the questioning of everything.

Thus, someone born in the late 80’s (or after) asking a question like “What is love?” is not surprising. They may want a concrete clear explanation, but it’s nearly impossible to full describe. And because falling in love is a subjective experience, it’s even harder for young postmoderns to know when it’s happening to them.

Mumford seems to be experiencing this millennial struggle. Love isn’t “black and white” for him; he wants to understand but can’t. “Tompkins Square Park” showcases this struggle and appropriately ends with him singing that “no flame burns forever, oh, no / You and I both know this all too well / And most don’t even last the night.”

What do you think “Tompkins Square Park” is about? What do you think about love? Is it possible to know what love feels like in a postmodern age? Think about it in the comments. 

And don’t forget to continue listening to “Tompkins Square Park” and Wilder Mind on Amazon! If you want notifications of future song interpretations and other blog posts, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and here on the blog! Cheers!

Explanations for other songs on Wilder Mind:

  1. Tompkins Square Park
  2. Believe
  3. The Wolf
  4. Wilder Mind
  5. Just Smoke
  6. Monster
  7. Snake Eyes
  8. Broad-Shouldered Beasts
  9. Cold Arms
  10. Ditmas
  11. Only Love
  12. Hot Gates
  • Ewerton

    I feel the same thing when I’m listening this song.
    It’s a subtel breakup song that he maybe wanted that work it out, but he knows that will not.
    Great analysis btw. Helped me a lot to interpret the lyrics and the hole feeling thing to portuguese. Thanks

    • Thanks, Ewerton! I can imagine that it’s pretty hard to get the same ideas and thoughts when it’s in a different language. Thanks so much for reading, and I’m super glad that I was able to help you. How did you get into Mumford & Sons?

    • Marie

      An affair?

      • That’s an interesting idea for sure! But who’s having it?

  • “Would the last two generations, those 35+ years old, have ever told a story like Mumford’s song? Were they ever confused about being in love? If so, they’ve done a good job of hiding it.”

    Erm… have you ever listened to any other love song ever in the history of love songs?

    • Any examples? I suppose you’re right, but don’t they seem to be getting more common at least? i suppose i was thinking more of the stories that everyone always has grandparents tell. They say things like “i saw her and i knew, and within two weeks we were married” whereas our generation is more apt to be very very careful and marry post age twenty five.

      • Clifford,
        Just wanted to let you know that your interpretation is fascinating and quite frankly, moving.
        Thank you for sharing this with the internet. The world is richer for you having written it.
        This is the first time I’ve visited your website, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on it from now on.
        Thank you again, my friend.

        • Clinton,

          That’s super awesome of you to say. I’ve never been called “moving” before, and I really appreciate that. I look forward to commenting back and forth more with you in the future! How’d you find it?

          ~Cliff

  • Tori

    I have listened to it 30 times and finally decided he’s ending an affair. He wants to see her one more time in secret (the darkness), but he’s going back to his wife. They both know all relationships burn out (that’s why they had the affair to begin with), and sometimes you cheat in a one night stand, sometimes it’s more. He’s lost because he wants her, but he can’t be himself with his conscience unless he goes back to his family. If things were black and white, just her and him, things would be different. The one lie was that he would leave his wife for her, which holds 1000 lies (I love you more, I can leave her, my old life is over).

    Tori

    • Thanks for sharing, Tori!

    • Em

      I’ve been listening to this song daily for the last two weeks. It has held me captive with this message. I do believe you are correct . He is ending an affair. And yes, that one lie holds a thousand lies. Thank you Tori, for helping me pin it down.

    • Chris

      My interpretation is just as Tori suggests – an affair that cannot continue for whatever reason, but it is because of him, not her. Either way it’s a beautiful song…haunting, soulful, and incredibly done by the band.

  • Jude Merkel

    I agree with Clinton, incredible break down. I don’t think this is about an affair but exactly what you said Clifford. Mumford is confused about loving this woman, who is potentially just a one night stand, and he doesn’t know what to do about his emotions. It is too difficult for him to process so he just wants to walk away. I love the point about one lie vs. a thousand lies. You put into words what I was thinking.

  • StephWood

    If it’s about an affair then I hope it isn’t depicting real life for Marcus! I just can’t bring myself to think he would do such a thing, seems like a genuinely decent person. And his wife is Carey Mulligan, I mean cmon! I’m guessing this is about another band member though I very much love this song!!!

    • I think it might just be a story from someone else’s perspective.