Tonight I chose Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More as my falling-asleep music. Bad idea. These are songs for thinking, some for dancing, but not for falling asleep. So I’m still awake with this review/listening guide in my head, and I want to write it down before I do fall asleep and forget everything I want to say.
In case you have been living under a rock (in which case you probably need to “Roll Away Your Stone”) and have not yet listened to Mumford and Sons, let me try to encapsulate their style for you: exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist. (In fact, that’s their genre on iTunes. That entire phrase. Just kidding.) I say “bluegrass” because of the prominence of the banjo and mandolin and because Marcus Mumford’s accent sounds, to my American ears, like the British equivalent of hillbilly. (Example: In several songs, such as “White Blank Page,” which include non-verbal syllables, he says “Arr,” not “Ahh.”) The English Renaissance part comes in with the Shakespeare references, found in the album title, the title track (whose lyrics are largely lifted from Much Ado about Nothing), and “Roll Away Your Stone,” where the line “Stars, hide your fires” is wrenched rather startlingly from its original Macbeth context and put to effective use. Other early modern touches include a song that seems to be about the Black Plague (“Winter Winds,” which contains a rare 21st-century use of the sadly neglected word “pestilence”) and some tunes I can only describe as troubadour-ish (hear, for example, the little melody at the beginning of “Roll Away Your Stone”; it sounds like something they might have danced to in the movie Elizabeth).
My favorite thing about the album is that it subtly tells a story. There is a clear introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution. I’ll try to outline the plot here without getting too long-winded. (Yeah, good luck with that.) After “Sigh No More,” which is the prologue, we have a solid line-up of hits: “The Cave,” “Winter Winds,” and “Roll Away Your Stone.” These are songs that you should roll down your car windows and shout along with. They are also triumphant, almost defiant, declarations of independence (especially “R.A.Y.S.”–I think it’s time to start abbreviating this title). The series of songs ends with the line, “You have neither reason nor rhyme / With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine.” These numbers are life-affirming, but all of this brazen exuberance so early on the album makes us wonder whether it can last.
Alas, it cannot. With “White Blank Page” and “I Gave You All,” something bad happens. (I mean in the plot, not to the music.) This bad thing is all the more frightening because it remains undefined. These are break-up songs, I suppose, but the singer/narrator seems not only to be breaking up with a girlfriend but with himself and even with God. (Yes, I think the lyrics justify these weighty interpretations. This is a weighty album. It’s good when you find a weighty album that you can dance to.) In the midst of it all, however, there’s still an ember of hope (a key word on this album). The last words in “White Blank Page” (besides “Arr”) are “Lead me to the truth, and I / Will follow you with my whole life.”
There’s a little bit of a turning point in the next song, “Little Lion Man.” For one thing, this is the first “upbeat” song since “R.A.Y.S.” For another, the singer is able to make a confession: “It was not your fault, but mine.” After the blame-casting of the two previous songs, this admission is refreshing, though perhaps it goes too far in the self-castigating direction. The song is cathartic, anyway. It’s another fun one to yell out the window, not least because you get to yell the f-word several times.
The next song, “Timshel,” is a puzzle, like its title. It’s one of only two songs on the album (the other is “After the Storm”) that stays quiet the whole way through and doesn’t swell to a climax. In this bittersweet song, someone seems to be dying. Or giving birth? Or being baptized? I don’t know whether the death is literal or symbolic, but the water imagery seems to indicate it will be followed by some sort of rebirth. The most profound line on the album, in my opinion, is in this song: “Death is at your doorstep / And it will steal your innocence / But it will not steal your substance.” Someone should preach a sermon about that. This song ranks, along with some David Crowder songs (“Come Awake” from A Collision and pretty much the entire Give Us Rest album), as one of my favorite songs about death.
Next comes the climax of the whole album: “Thistle and Weeds.” Unlike some of the earlier numbers, this one doesn’t necessarily catch your attention from the beginning; you might be tempted to skip it, but don’t. Soon enough you’ll get to a percussive thunderstorm of piano and drums, over which Marcus hollers a line from an earlier song: “I will hold on hope.” In “The Cave,” it’s easy to mentally skip over this line; here, we get its full significance. The protagonist of the story is holding on for dear life. Someone or something is trying to steal his hope, hence the desperation of the vocal. The song ends quietly, but without much resolution. We have to wait until the next song to find out what happened. (N.B. “Thistle and Weeds” contains easily the creepiest line on the album: “Let the dead bury their dead / And they will come out in droves.”)
The next song is “Awake My Soul,” and it might be my favorite, although it’s nearly impossible to choose. This song doesn’t have the wild abandon of the set of hits at the beginning of the album, but its happiness is richer and deeper because it’s been tempered by sadness. Yes (spoiler alert), the protagonist has held onto his hope. As you can probably guess from the title, with this song comes the resurrection (if not bodily, then at least spiritual) that has been foreshadowed in earlier songs, such as “Winter Winds” (“You’ll be happy and wholesome again”) and “Timshel.” Here, the expression “meet your maker” is not ominous, like it tends to be in common usage, but joyful.
Part bad-ass gunslinger ballad, part jeremiad against greed and oppression, “Dust Bowl Dance” is the only song that seems out of place on this album. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good song. I just think they should have saved it for their next album. For one thing, it breaks up the flow of the story; there shouldn’t be anything bleak after “Awake My Soul,” and “Dust Bowl Dance” is pretty bleak. For another, with its distorted guitar and manic cymbals, it’s more rock than (remember?) exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist. And finally, speaking of the English Renaissance, the Dust Bowl was a 20th-century American event, so it’s weird to encounter it here. Still, I love the inflection in Marcus’s voice on the last line: “You haven’t met me; I am the only son.” It should be in a good tragic action movie.
The aptly-named “After the Storm” is the last song and the other quiet song. It could be anti-climactic, but only if you’re not paying attention. The guitar is lovely, and the lyrics are rain-drenched with meaning. It’s not a happily-ever-after ending because it’s not really an ending. The song uses a lot of future tense: “There will come a time, you’ll see / With no more tears, and love will not break your heart.” You’re admonished to “Get over your hill and see / What you find there.”
What will we find there? A second Mumford and Sons album? Yes, happily, later this year! But for now, go back and listen to Sigh No More (or “Come out of your cave” and listen to it for the first time). I’ve told you what I’ve found in this album; now I’d love to know what you find there.