British four-piece Mumford & Sons has been in the vanguard of something of a UK folk revival since the band formed two years ago and create manly, passionate music which stirs the soul and warms the heart. Sigh No More is an extraordinary debut from a band which has built a committed following through extensive live appearances. Extraordinary not simply because its a good album but because it is popularizing a style of music which, other than for the odd halcyon period, is derided as only fit for people who think Fishermens smocks, sandals, and Arran sweaters are cool. Relax; this is good enough for you to rattle your pewter tankards to.
The very name Mumford & Sons conjures up a sepia image of waistcoats and starched collars, of a family business from a bygone age. The kind youd rely upon build you a dry stone wall or re-roof your hay loft. Theres a sense here of building something solid and worthy that runs throughout the record. This is a band that would give its all and not overcharge for the privilege. The very English sensibility of the album is counterbalanced by the production values, which at times call to mind Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. This is no great surprise, as the record was produced by Marcus Dravs, who in addition to Arcade Fire, has worked with Bjork and The Maccabees.
Mumford & Sons comprise American-born but British-raised Marcus Mumford (on vocals, guitar, and percussion), Country Winston (vocals, banjo, dobro), Ben Lovett (vocals, keyboards, organ) and Ted Dwane (vocals and double bass).The band has close associations with Noah & The Whale and Laura Marling, for whom Marcus Mumford plays drums. Marling and Mumford indeed are partners and maybe the nearest thing the UK folk scene has to Posh & Becks. The couple factor may have helped garner PR, but it is more a testimony to the quality of the music on offer here that Mumford & Sons have created an industry buzz that belies their folk roots. Loyal fans are understandable, but label execs salivating over folk music?
What set the bees around the honey pot isnt immediately apparent from how the title track begins the record. It is a sparse, heartfelt affair, kept low-key until the passion is put in overdrive in the last minute of the song through a particularly storming build, which recalls Dravs’ work with Arcade Fire. This easily could have gone on longer, and you wouldnt tire of it. The Cave carries on fromSigh No More with earnest verses and a blistering chorus, which implores you to sing along or bang something along in time to the stirring chords. This is an album highlight with a strong, compelling melody and belief etched into the very words. Winter Winds starts more like a traditional folk song but is another builder with banjo to the fore and then brass making a late entrance to raise the intensity stakes further.
After three pop song length offerings, Roll Away Your Stone extends into four-minute plus territory, where the album remains, other than for one track. Theres a confessional tone to the lyric, which gives way to a full-on bluegrass jam, and the song overall has a proper epic feel to it. The unusual White Blank Page has verses in madrigal style played out through Mumfords husky, careworn tones, which contrast with the rollicking chorus and characteristic intensity in the playing. The next song, I Gave You All, doesnt quite work as well, and the introspection here verges on melodrama.
Little Lion Man, which prefigured the album as a single release, is arguably the song that opened up a wider audience for the band in the UK through some serious radio plays and endorsements. Its a rousing folk anthem of regret and unrequited misfortune: “Tremble, little lion man/Youll never settle any of your scores/Your grace is wasted in your face/Your boldness stands alone among the wreck”. Timshel, by contrast, is stripped down Mumford, a pleasing eulogy with gentle guitar and rich vocal harmonies. Theres a hymnal quality to the song, which is in tune with the biblical references scattered lyrically throughout the record.
Thistle & Weeds is an epic builder towards what appears to be a full-on finale, only to then conclude in quiet resolution. The next song, Awake My Soul, is a particular gem, a soul stirrer, which doesnt absolutely follow the trademark Mumford & Sons route to goal and stands out because of it. The murderous fable Dust Bowl Dance progresses from soft piano led intro into a cataclysmic mash-up with psychedelic overtones. Finally, After The Storm provides a reflective ending to the album that neatly mirrors the title track.
Sigh No More has a feeling of folk authenticity running through it, even though the protagonists are fundamentally more town than country. It has all to do with the delivery. These guys sound like they mean it, and such passion in music is always a commendable thing. Lyrically, the themes mined here are loves self-doubt, romance, death, regret, and heartbreak, all crafted with careful consideration.The formula of the elegiac slow-build leading to a strident, rhythmic finale is repeated often but does not ultimately jar. Earnest and sporadically a bit too worthy for its own good, Sigh No More still merits an addition to your “All I want for Christmas” albums list. It has enough commercial gloss, too, to compensate for the rambling, shambling stuff, but will also sound mighty fine when the snow is on the ground and the logs are blazing in your proverbial hearth.