Sigh No More
Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding recently scored an unlikely win over Mumford & Sons (not to mention Justin Bieber!) in the Best New Artist category at the 2011 Grammys. But that hasn't stopped the British folk-rock quartet from having a remarkable year anyway. Majoring in banjo, dobro and mandolin paired with rousing four-part harmonic musings on the meaning of life, the band used its Grammy exposure to climb to No. 2 on the album chart—more than a year after the release of Sigh No More.
First single "Little Lion Man" is a downcast reflection on a man's weaknesses—complete with an f-word-laden chorus. And in my review of that track, I noted, "If you're hoping for anything approximating a redemptive turn later in the tune, well, you can stop holding your breath now." But it is not representative of the whole album. In fact, much of Sigh No More seems informed by a biblical worldview and sounds almost as if it could have come straight from the book of Ecclesiastes.
"Serve God, love me and mend," begins opener "Sigh No More." And after an apology for apparently failing a friend, the song's narrator reflects on the power and beauty of love: "Love, it will not betray you/Dismay or enslave you/It will set you free."
Sentiments like those permeate the material, as the band repeatedly traverses the territory between failure and grace. On "The Cave," we meet another man haunted by fear and shame who nonetheless decides, "But I will hold on hope/ … And I will change my ways/I'll know my name as it's called again." Likewise, "Thistle & Weeds" counsels clearing those tangling influences from our hearts ("Plant your hope with good seeds/Don't cover yourself with thistle and weeds").
The poetic "Roll Away Your Stone" seems a clear allusion to Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. Marcus Mumford tells the story of a man who hasn't found satisfaction in the world ("I have filled this void with things unreal/And all the while my character it steals"). Then he discovers grace amid the apparent loss of everything ("It seems that all my bridges have been burnt/But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works/It's not the long walk home that will change his heart/But the welcome I receive with the restart").
"Winter Winds" tries to suss out life's meaning by looking at it from the perspective of death: "We'll be washed and buried one day, my girl/ … The flesh that lived and loved will be eaten by the plague/So let the memories be good for those who stay." That tension—finding purpose in life against the backdrop of death's certainty—turns up on several other tracks as well. "Timshel" promises that someone facing the end does not do so alone ("You are not alone/As brothers we will stand/And we'll hold your hand"). "Awake My Soul" reminds us, "In these bodies we will live/In these bodies we will die/Where you invest your love/You invest your life/ … Awake my soul/For you were made to meet your maker." "After the Storm" looks forward to peace in the afterlife ("But there will come a time you'll see no more tears/And love will not break your heart/But dismiss your fears").
"White Blank Page" challenges a man to consider whether he can commit his heart and soul to a woman as easily as he might offer his body alone ("Can you lie next to her/And give her your heart/Your heart, as well as your body/ … Your love, as well as your folly?").
As noted, a repeated f-word in the chorus of "Little Lion Man" is easily the album's biggest (possibly only) issue. "Dust Bowl Dance" narrates the sad tale of a teen who gets revenge on someone who foreclosed on his father's farm by killing him. But he's ready to face the consequences ("I've nowhere to hide/ … Align my heart, my body, my mind/To face what I've done, and do my time").
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly reflecting on the band's sudden fame, Marcus Mumford admits that his record company was nervous about the f-words on "Little Lion Man." "We weren't even going to put [the song] on the album," he confesses. "There were [industry] people asking, 'Is there any way you can write a different word? We'll do anything.' We tried it and it was just horrible, it didn't work at all."
Given the music industry's extraordinarily laissez-faire attitude toward profanity these days (we've seen two songs with f-words in their titles hit the Top 10 in the last several months alone), I must confess that when I read that quote I was a bit surprised anyone would actually care about a stray f-bomb in an indie folk band's music. Listening to the rest of Sigh No More, however, I better understand those unnamed record company execs' concerns. Not only is the profanity in question the only real issue worth noting here, it contrasts starkly with the beautiful and spiritual messages about life and death, grace and forgiveness found in the remainder of Mumford & Sons' otherwise breathtaking debut.