Although you’d probably never guess it from listening to Mumford & Sons’ debut LP, Sigh No More, the entire band hails from West London. Yet these four gentlemen manage to tap into the fabled Old, Weird America better than their ballyhooed American counterparts Kings of Leon and the Avett Brothers. Beyond superficial measures like employing banjo, mandolin, and double-bass, Mumford & Sons appear to have a Masters‘ level education in and appreciation for American roots music traditions, not to mention that they can whip-up a barnstorming hoedown like it’s nobody’s business. Therein lies a major part of their appeal and power: they treat the banjo like a Stratocaster.
While it’s easy to focus on the Americana aspects of the band’s music, that’s not the full extent of their arsenal. The banjo-led stomps are plentiful for sure, but there are also healthy doses of baroque pop and cathartic indie rock that echo Arcade Fire and Frightened Rabbit. That comparison extends to lyrics as well. Like Win Butler and Scott Hutchinson, Marcus Mumford has a tendency to emote forcefully and earnestly. When the stunning title track’s claim of “Love that will not betray you / Dismay or enslave you / It will set you free” comes barreling at you, there’s not a moment to roll your eyes. You simply submit to the rush.
“Awake My Soul” shows that Mumford is also capable of Waitsian lyrical gems: “In these bodies, we will live / In these bodies, we will die / Where you invest your love, you invest your life”. The song is a definite highlight, but almost every song on Sigh No More sounds fit to be a killer single. Case in point: they’ve absolutely blown-up in their native England with singles “Winter Winds”, “The Cave”, and, especially, “Little Lion Man”. With the rapidly increasing popularity of the aforementioned Kings of Leon and Avett Brothers, it’s natural to assume that Mumford & Sons could experience similar success here in the States. Not that I’m holding my breath.
If I had to place a bet on the Mumford song that will fare best with American ears, my money’s on “The Cave”, a song that distills Ralph Stanley, the Band, and Arcade Fire into a transcendent anthem with a chorus tailor-made for karaoke: “But I will hold on hope / And I won’t let you choke / On the noose around your neck / And I’ll find strength in pain / And I will change my ways”. Yes, that all looks terribly trite written down, but in the context of song’s thrust, it just works (as these things often do). The fact of the matter is that Sigh No More is an album meant to be sung along to — loudly and shamelessly.
Sigh No More inspires evangelism through sheer force of will. Between Mumford’s gripping wail and the Sons’ whirlwind revelries, it’s a revival hard to resist. It’s not a flawless record, but it does a damn good job of making you look the other way. The more I listen to this album, the more I realize that it’s teflon-coated against cynicism. Mumford’s platitudes would normally grate on me, but they’re surprisingly easy to forgive when they’re being howled over the Sons’ locomotive folk-rock. Like another celebrated Londoner before him, Mumford obviously realizes the vital importance of being earnest.