I discovered Mumford and Sons quite by accident, hearing “Little Lion Man” on WFNX while driving to a nearby Staples last Sunday, and using Shazam on my Droid to get the artist/song info, thinking maybe it was an Irish-influenced band along the lines of Flogging Molly. On the recommendations of several followers on Twitter, I downloaded the album (just $8 on amazon), and discovered – for myself, that is – a remarkable new album that, while imperfect, seems to be a harbinger of great things to come.
Sigh No More comprises twelve songs in three rough categories: fast songs, slow songs, or slow-then-fast songs. The entirely-slow songs came off as too precious, especially with hypersensitive recording that captures little cracks in Mumford’s voice or the scraping of fingers against acoustic guitar strings, but the songs that find the band, led by singer Marcus Mumford, picking up the pace all worked, with some sounding like back-country hoedowns while others bringing to mind pints raised in the air (and sloshing on the floor) as the bar sings along. They use tempo changes effectively and go from sparse instrumentation to lush within the span of a single song, tricks that only felt like tricks when the underlying music wasn’t strong enough to support it.
“Little Lion Man” is far and away the best song on the album, opening with a staccato guitar pattern and incorporating hints of bluegrass, folk, and even jug-band country as it moves through verse and chorus, with Mumford’s wailing (in a good way) over the bridge leading into a final, devastating pair of choruses, the latter a cappella, that lay bare the singer’s shame at his (unstated) actions and the implications for his character as a whole. The group’s harmonies, strong all over the album, are razor-sharp here, and the track’s production is crisp and clean, letting the music take center stage without some of those minor frills that mar later songs on the disc. If you’re going to start with Mumford and Sons, start with this song.
On the whole, the disc represents a marriage of British/Irish folk music as it might be played in a blue-collar pub, but with the addition of a bluegrass-inflected banjo and three- and four-part harmonies that you’ll feel in your bones. The second-best track on the disc, “Winter Winds,” features a brass backing behind the repeated couplet “And my head told my heart…” that’s reminiscent of the best of Animals That Swim, a British band that married brilliant stories with music I could only describe as tunes to which you should get drunk. I heard hints of AWS all over this record, but this track in particular is more like a brilliant cover of a song the earlier band never actually wrote. The one slow-ish track that works, the seething “White Blank Page,” gets needed roughness when Mumford accentuates the natural rasp in his voice, while the title track starts slow and accelerates to the point where the track’s end may make you forget where you begun.
Mumford and Sons strive to offer intelligent lyrics, and there are flashes of that all over the disc, but if held to that higher standard it falls short, with too many cute phrases and platitudes and overreliance on discussion of the metaphorical soul. Mumford speaks of the soul not in a spiritual or transcendent sense, but as some critical part of our being that must be protected, kept free, or nourished, but these mentions are all vague and ultimately empty. If someone tells you “your soul you must keep totally free,” that sounds great, but what exactly does that mean? They’d do well to replace much of this superficial profundity and delve into the imagery that sets apart truly great lyrics and elevates them into (or perhaps just near) the realm of poetry.
“Roll Away Your Stone” exemplifies what’s right and wrong with the album. It begins with a soft, lilting pattern that morphs into a bluegrass stomp while maintaining the core melody, transitions into a down-tempo chorus with their standard soaring harmony, and finishes with a quiet couplet of just Mumford’s voice over guitar. It’s effective and rousing, and there are hints of lyrical greatness within, yet that promise remains unfulfilled when Mumford misses a chance to extend a metaphor throughout the song. The one image in the opening line, “Roll away your stone and I’ll roll away mine,” never recurs, even with an ideal spot in the closing lines: “And you, you’ve gone too far this time/You have neither reason nor rhyme/With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine.” Substitute “stone” for “soul” and you’ve opened a world of possible interpretations, not to mention the amusing image of Mumford fiercely protecting a rock (or pebble) that someone is trying to snatch.
Returning, again, to the standout “Little Lion Man,” the lyrics – a despairing offset to the rapid bluegrass-inflected music – are more advanced than those on the remainder of the album, from the image of the title (a nod to the Cowardly Lion?) to the admonition to “learn from your mother or else spend your days biting your own neck” to, by far, the most effective use of the word “fuck” in a popular music song since Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” with a far less crude connotation. If Mumford and Sons can craft a song like this, they can craft a half-dozen or more, and in that skill lies the potential for a tremendous album, one that will do more than reach the top of Billboard‘s folk charts.
I was originally going to compare Sigh No More to Colby Rasmus’ 2009 season, where the performance was littered with the promise of great things to come, but I think Brett Anderson’s 2009 would be more apt, as Sigh is still a terrific album despite its hiccups and flaws, one I’ve listened to repeatedly over the last week not because I needed to do so to write about it, but because five or six of its songs have become lodged in my head to the point where I feel driven to play them again and again.