The 2008 British folk movement brought the two leading luminaries into the Bottom Lounge in Chicago for a half-filled show. Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling had been stirring hearts and minds, expanding into the festival circuit. Woe be thee who missed the opening act, because Marcus Mumford and company provided a stunning surprise that eclipsed the headliners. Chicago’s first taste of Mumford & Sons happened in Fall 2008, and today marks the release of their debut album nearly a year and a half later. (Review of said show.)
What happened between there is no secret. The enchantment didn’t fade, but grew as the intricate combination of intimate lyricism and anthemic musicianship built on the basis of EPs to become one of the hottest tickets to procure. Sigh No More features several reworked versions of these EP tracks, in addition to finally debuting recorded takes of “Thistle & Weeds” and “Dustbowl Dance”.
The title track, “Sigh No More”, introduces the album with Marcus, Country Winston, Ben Lovett and Ted Dawne all contributing to a chorused call. A sole guitar becomes accompanied with the naturalistic twang of a standup bass, punctuated with harsh strums over the steel strings. Like many of Mumford & Sons’ fables, it’s a steady build up the hill before a restrained release of symphonic sound washes over. It’s nothing new…it’s exactly what they did at the Bottom Lounge to upstage the folk titans.
While it may be one thing to sit and critique, attempt to expose flaws and say, “They should change things up,” it is another to try fully knowing this talent was not haphazard and concocted in a studio. The organic, oft-piano driven sound has always flourished as it does on “Dustbowl Dance.” Unlike purely pressing play, you miss Marcus overtaking drumming duties while sewing his stories. The impassioned pleas “Steal my heart and break my pride. I’ve no where to stand and now no where to hide” would have lost their crushing impact had the recording been characteristic of the do-it-yourself nature of typical singer/songwriters. Instead we’ve been given an carefully embellished cornucopia as colorfully produced as an album from The Decemberists.
The issue does lie in the lack of variety in the songs, albeit it’s a forced flaw. The newest recorded tracks, such as “Timshel” and “I Gave You All” attempt to slow and strip down to the chorused core of the group. “Timshel” succeeds, providing an almost gospel tone as instrumentally the guitar provides a softened frame around the vocals, or what truly gives Mumford & Sons their unique attraction. The musicians can all sing, and this commonality is expanded through divvying parts as an actual chorus would. Instead of serving as a background, the collective voices are forefront and never an afterthought as often is the case in contemporary music.
While many will only be exposed to “Little Lion Man”, the mightily massive single that has been spinning constantly in the UK, nor the trumpet-led “Winter Winds”, rest assured that it is no lead-in. “Sigh No More” has no fillers, no titles tossed insouciantly but is the sort of debut full-length album artists try and should aspire to achieve.