Sometimes we want to be better than we actually are.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of “Little Lion Man,” the first hit from the Grammy-nominated British folk-rock quartet Mumford & Sons. Blending bluegrass banjo, piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar and shimmering four-part vocal harmonies, Marcus Mumford and his three bandmates deliver a mournful, melancholy reflection on not quite being man enough to make a relationship work.
“Weep for yourself, my man,” Mumford begins, “You’ll never be what is in your heart/Weep, little lion man/You’re not as brave as you were at the start.”
And if you’re hoping for anything approximating a redemptive turn later in the tune, well, you can stop holding your breath now. Not only is there no hope of positive resolution here (“Tremble, little lion man/You’ll never settle any of your scores”), the singer’s harsh self-condemnation in the chorus turns upon a bitterly enunciated f-word: “But it was not your fault but mine/And it was your heart on the line,” Mumford confesses to, presumably, a woman he’s driven away by some unnamed failure. “I really f‑‑‑ed it up this time/Didn’t I, my dear?” (I’ve put that obscenity in italics here for emphasis because that’s exactly how Mumford spits the word from his mouth—five times.)
Those dour sentiments contrast sharply with the upbeat sound and feel of the song itself. One part Dexy’s Midnight Runners, one part Kings of Leon, “Little Lion Man” is the kind of rousing folk-rocker one imagines could have a pub full of working-class folk in rural England raising their pints to the rafters. That infectious quality, in turn, makes it the kind of song that easily gets lodged between your ears—f-word-laced self-flagellation and all.
As for the tune’s inspiration, Marcus Mumford told the Australian Broadcasting Company, “It’s a very personal story, so I won’t elaborate upon it too much. Suffice it to say, it was a situation in my life I wasn’t very happy with or proud of.” He also noted how deeply he has to feel something to include it in the lyrics of a song he’s writing. “I place specific importance on [lyrics]. I can’t write lyrics unless I really feel them and mean them.”
It’s safe to say, then, that the song’s profane moments reflect a deliberate decision.
“It’s quite an aggressive song, a bit more of a punch in the face,” Mumford noted. “Or at least, for our stuff, anyway—a lot of our stuff isn’t quite as hard-hitting as that. It felt like the right song to be the single because it represented the harder, darker side of what we do, and at the same time, the more folksy and punchy side.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.