Folk music wasn’t really on my radar until a few years ago. Sufjan Stevens taught me that banjos weren’t only for usage in the song from Deliverance, while Fleet Foxes sold me on what I’d previously call “mountain man” folk music. Mumford & Sons‘ 2010 debut, Sigh No More, furthered my education and enjoyment of modern folk rock music.
The English band consists of lead singer, Marcus Mumford and bandmates Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, and Ted Dwayne. The four men share the role of backing vocals and songwriting, while a bevy of instruments (including banjos, drums, accordion, acoustic guitar, bass, and even brass) lay down the backing music in the tracks. I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy the band’s debut album, but I was pleasantly surprised by the sensitive, heartfelt songs and the band’s spirited sound.
Title track, Sigh No More, starts off with an impressive four-part harmony, which is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the lush sounds in store on the album. By the time the chorus arrives, the music has picked up with some of those aforementioned banjos, drums and violin- creating a rousing, toe-tapping sound that fits in perfectly with the triumphant lyrics (“Love, it will not betray you/Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free/Be more like the man you were made to be”).
The biggest track from the album is the exuberant Little Lion Man. The electric guitar that plays throughout gives the song what’s probably the most “commercial” sound on the album. Of course, there are still some of Mumford’s trademark sounds- banjos, accordion and organ are a plenty, but this song sounds less “folky” and more like an outright rock song. The lyrics are even more rock ‘n roll, as Marcus growls the f-bomb during the chorus (“But it was not your fault but mine/And it was your heart on the line/I really f–ked it up this time/Didn’t I, my dear?”), but the rage in the lyrics and the fury of instruments work well together, providing the perfect post-breakup anthem.
The topic of heartbreak is revisited frequently on the album, and it’s done particularly well on downbeat ballad, White Blank Page. The song is probably my favourite on the album, thanks to the heart wrenching lyrics (“Oh tell me now, where was my fault/In loving you with my whole heart/A white blank page and a swelling rage, rage/You did not think when you sent me to the brink, the brink/You desired my attention but denied my affections, my affections”), and Marcus’ appropriately raw delivery. The fiddle and banjo play along in the background, creating a lovely accompaniment to the bitter lyrics. I Gave You All is another melancholy ballad, this time with a far more understated sound. Marcus’ quiet vocals never really pick up, nor does the song stray from the simplistic piano and acoustic guitar melody, but the stripped down sound helps further express the broken desperation in the lyrics.
The Cave begins with a hushed solo from Marcus, before transitioning into another raucous, banjo-heavy song. The harmonizing from the band, cheerful trombones and catchy chorus make up a perfectly jubilant song. Meanwhile, Dust Bowl Dance is every bit of a dance number as its title suggests; the thudding drum loop and epic guitar solo during the bridge create the perfect soundtrack for a good, old fashioned hoe-down.
Not all of the songs on the album are as memorable, however. I suppose one of the downfalls of Mumford & Sons as a band is that their harmonies (while lovely) do tend to sound the same, and you can only hear the banjo so many times before it becomes a bit monotonous. Winter Winds is a nice enough song, but the upbeat melody sounds similar to The Cave, yet lacks the interesting musical transition that the other song does so well. Roll Away Your Stone is a pretty, yet understated ballad, that actually does sound like something from a Fleet Foxes album. Though the homegrown, woodsy sound is nice, the song isn’t interesting enough for repeated listens. Timshel is truly the most boring track on the album- despite the impressive harmonizing during the opening verse, the rest of the song never deviates from its simplistic four chord progression. Thistle & Weeds is almost indistinguishable from the song before it, and the depressingly slow melody and Marcus’ uninspired delivery do very little to make the song stand out against the stronger tracks on the album.
The best is saved for last with Awake My Soul and After The Storm. The first of the two is a song I surprisingly first heard at an Easter Sunday service a few years ago. The lyrics of Awake My Soul are certainly inspirational (“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die/And where you invest your love, you invest your life/Awake my soul, awake my soul”), and though I have no idea whether or not the members of Mumford & Son are religious, I can definitely see the meaning of the song being one of a spiritual struggle. Marcus’ raspy vocals sound earnest and heartfelt, particularly once the song picks up during the bridge, with a fast-paced banjo solo and lovely harmonies from the other bandmates.
After The Storm is my absolute favourite song the album, though you wouldn’t immediately guess so from how slow the first verse plays on. Though I earlier panned the band for making a song that didn’t go anywhere musically, I have to say the idea works a lot better on this ballad; the soft piano and vocals don’t change in tempo for most of the song, but the focus is really on the intricate, beautiful lyrics (“And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears/And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears/Get over your hill and see what you find there/With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair”). Furthermore, the harmony during the chorus is absolutely perfect, and even if the lyrics weren’t so inspiring to me, I’d still listen to the song just for the sake of hearing the harmonies.
Sigh No More is a great indie folk album. Mumford & Sons have perfected the combination of lush harmonies, jubilant sounds and honest, unique songwriting. Whether you consider yourself a true fan of the folk music genre, or just appreciate a beautiful song, there’s something here for you on this album.
1. Sigh No More
2. The Cave
3. Winter Winds
4. Roll Away Your Stone
5. White Blank Page
6. I Gave You All
7. Little Lion Man
9. Thistle & Weeds
10. Awake My Soul
11. Dust Bowl Dance
12. After The Storm