Mumford & Sons Give Folk a “White Blank Page”

Originally published on BU Common Ground on January 11, 2011
Despite its traditional christening as “the people’s music”, folk has always experienced rocky popularity in mainstream culture. The 1960s revival not only captured the world with its subliminal simplicity and return to roots, but also encapsulated the tradition to vinyl, making it marketable for the first time. Yet, once dusty work boots began to be shined on Carnaby St. and Sunset Blvd., electric instruments began to drown true folk artists out, returning the genre to shadows — until now.

With Mumford & Sons’ 2010 debut album Sigh No More¸ folk fans can again breathe with ease. As if personifying the driving percussion and honest passion that dominates their music, Mumford & Sons battled past the inhuman electronica that dominates both Top 40 and Indie charts this year to finally return folk to the mainstream.

While many connoisseurs previously marked a folk revival with the recent popularity of groups like The Avett Brothers, Iron & Wine, and Fleet Foxes,no group other than Mumford have been able to capture the organic ecstasy found in the community that is created when folk music is shared. The title of “folk” cannot be arbitrarily assigned when a group employs acoustic guitar, banjo, and hollow bass on their tracks; rather, folk is a mindset. On their official website, Mumford explains that they formed to “make music that matters, without taking themselves too seriously.”

This is folk.
Sigh No More may be as flawless as a debut album can be and the finest of the album are most definitely the five first introductory tracks. The opening vocals in the title track “Sigh No More” quotes Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to pierce and plead for forgiveness. Despite this agony, Mumford then showcases his ability to economize spirit in simple phrases. Crooning “Man is a giddy thing”, Mumford communicates man’s insatiable need to always pursue love, leading the track to finish in a Druid-dance pounding celebration of passion.
The album marches on with “The Cave”, a musical search for true identity. Mumford showcases his storytelling abilities here, not only with his emotive and engaging voice, but also in his various allusions to ultimate folk tale, Homer’s The Odyssey, which serves as an acknowledgement of his predecessors. The following “Winter Winds” weighs the consequences of falling in love and creates a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector proud.
“Roll Away Your Stone” exhibits the band’s range, beginning with a Celtic waltz which transitions into a skiffle that shuffles into a hoedown explosion, all while hailing the “newly impassioned soul” that emerges from darkness and ruin. In “White Blank Page”, Mumford impugns his former desire, furious with her rejections of his unconditional love and heartbroken that she has chosen another. Mumford’s emotion is most tangible on this track and his indignation breaks the listener’s heart as well.

While the second half of the album is not as radiant as the former, the band still remains strong. “I Gave You All” builds off the theme of “White Blank Page”, but offers a softer treatment while still showcasing Mumford’s poetry: “If only I had an enemy bigger than apathy, I could have won.” The following “Little Lion Man” currently sits at #64 on Billboard’s Hot Top 100 and has proven to be the band’s most famous. The track berates a modern-day “Cowardly Lion” and while effective, it is puzzling why the group chose it as its single over their more memorable tracks.

The following three tracks, “Timshel”, “Thistle & Weeds”, and “Awake My Soul” all sound relatively similar, but still exemplify the group’s ability to recreate hymnals that have been sung around tables and campfires for centuries. The penultimate track “Dust Bowl Dance” is slightly out of place in the middle of the other love songs, but captures an American folk sound mixed with piercing electric guitar, again illustrating the group’s potential for diversity. Sigh No Morecloses with “After the Storm”, a somewhat flat, but still gently poetic piece that speaks of the struggle to “know life” after the “decay” of a lost love.

Granted, the album could be reorganized to present a more concrete chronology of the love story and the band could work to diversify their sound. It must be emphasized, however, that this is a debut album and mirrors the iteration of most beginning artists. No band since Arcade Fire’s 2004 Funeral has showed this much potential through a debut album.

While universal appeal is a rare achievement for any music group, this blogger recommends that everyone should listen to Sigh No More. In the midst of their organic instrumentals, emotive vocals, and intelligent and poetic lyrics, everyone can find a piece of Mumford to cling to. It is this reality that truly defines this album as folk – Mumford & Sons is the “people’s music.” As if to underscore this definition, Sigh No More has reached #8 on Billboard’s Hot Top 200 Albums list and #1 on its Rock, Alternative, and Folk charts, indication the world has embraced Mumford. The group has additionally garnered two 2011 Grammy nods. To be characterized as folk, music needs to not only use the rustic instruments common people have played for centuries, but it also needs to encapsulate its unabashed emotion and storytelling qualities that have continually brought groups of diverse people together in song that has a touch of divinity in its unity.
This is folk. Folk is back.
Overall Grade: 8.5

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