One of the left-field “holy hell, everyone loves this” breakout songs of 2010 was “Little Lion Man” by English folkers Mumford & Sons Sigh No More. This album came out in 2009, and just this year got nominated for a couple Grammys. So, with nothing else to review and a current folk kick, I figured why not?
“Little Lion Man” (perhaps the best song on the album) is probably the draw for most people. The song has a build, good old fashion folk instrumentation, and a down home hoedown as a finisher. The only problem is that I just described the majority of the album. Too many of these songs plod along at a reasonable pace for the first two minutes, picks up at the chorus, and then throws the “Folk power, go!” switch for the Big Finish. On a song-by-song basis, it doesn’t really hurt the band because the finish is often satisfying, but it gets eye-roll worthy if you take the album in all at once.
That’s not me writing off Sigh No More, since this isn’t a bad album. “Winter Winds” eschews the usual formula to maintain a steady pulse, and it genuinely works. And despite falling into the band’s ‘three and a half minutes to crescendo’, “The Cave” bombast actually feels satisfying (thanks in part to Markus Dravs’ production). The aforementioned “Little Lion Man” burns with a passion rarely seen elsewhere on the album. And even though they’re barely memorable once the final acoustic strum fades out, songs like “Blank White Page” are kind of exciting while they last.
Even though Mumford & Sons consists of a bunch of Brits, they have an American folk fetish that shows up all over the album. From their instrumentation to their lyrics, Sigh No More has faded red, white, and blue paint on its acoustic guitar. “Dustbowl Dance” in particular revels in hard-times Americana, and American folk’s directness is present in most of these lyrics (“I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I, my dear?”, “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy”, etc).
A good point of comparison for frontman Marcus Mumford is Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. Neither one sounds like a trained singer (although admittedly, Butler has gotten a lot better about this recently), but both manage to fit their style. Both have a tendency towards poetry or clunky lyrics without a middle ground, and each man tends to oversing. The key difference, though, is that Butler tends to go for broke on conviction; even with weak lyrics, he still sounds like he believes every word (hi there, Neon Bible). Meanwhile, Mumford manages to make hammy but heartfelt lyrics sound anonymous and impersonal, which takes everything down a notch.
That’s another bump with Sigh No More; there’s a lot of vocal redundancy. Almost every chorus has Fleet Foxes inspired harmonies and gang vocals, and Mumford tends to hold onto his words a lot in the same manner, which doesn’t help on the diversity front. The lack of diversity hurts the less dramatic numbers; “Timshel” isn’t a bad song on it’s own, but feels pointless and meandering, and the plaintive closer “After the Storm” takes uninteresting elements from the rest of the album and makes them into one musical wallpaper.
How ever much you enjoyed “Little Lion Man” is how much you’ll enjoy this record. Sigh No More isn’t a bad record, it’s just a fairly predictable and safe one. Song-to-song, it works fine, but as a whole, it bleeds together too well. Mumford and Sons have a lot of potential, though; all of the pieces are here, but the order is wrong. Three and a half stars.
tl;dr: Mumford and Sons’ debut is little on lion. 3.5/5.