Sign No More
Mumford & Sons' debut release straddles a musical divide; in one direction you have the indie folk harmony and acoustic instrumentation of artist like Fleet Foxes, Laura Veirs, Iron & Wine, & Noah and the Whale. In the other direction waves of rising drama match pinnacles hit in the music of Arcade Fire, Bjork, and Coldplay. The latter direction isn’t surprising; Sign No More is produced by Marcus Dravs who has worked with the latter three. You’ll catch multiple comparisons points to these bands as you work your way through the album.
The West London quartet was formed by Marcus Mumford in the summer of 2007 when he enlisted good friends Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane, and Marshall “Country” Winston to join him in creating a band that would make “music that matters.” Evolving from their shared love of country, bluegrass and folk music, Mumford & Sons' songs feature a dizzying array of acoustic instruments. Their lyrics are penitent meditations; there’s a lot of apologies and breast-beating involved as well as broken-hearted braying.
Opening with the title track, The Mumfords borrow from the biggest gun in the language arsenal by referencing Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing:” “Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you / It will set you free / Be more like the man you were made to be.” The song begins with harmonies similar to Fleet Foxes but by song’s end the band’s lament has risen to fever pitch. It’s impossible not to think of Arcade Fire’s song “Intervention” as a church- like organ pumps along to the pounding rhythm of manifold acoustic instruments.
This sets the template for the band’s approach to songwriting; open with a soft acoustic phrase, build emotional tension, then let it tear forth in a crescendo of mounting instruments. Guitars atop piano, above mandolin and strings, piled over dobro and horns, and Country Winston’s ever-present banjo. Rarely has a banjo been used this often and this aggressively on a rock album. It is the driving force in nearly every song. “Roll Away the Stone” is an example of this approach to songwriting. Beginning with a soft Irish lilt, the songs explodes into a frenzy of pounding rhythms, and I think it’s fair to say just about every instrument – be it piano, banjo, or guitar, is used as a percussive instrument.
Back to the apology – there are many songs on which the band is on bended knee with bowed head but none more so than “Little Lion Man.” But they don’t seek absolution quietly. Mumford gladly and profanely accepts all responsibility for a failed relationship, turning the act of absolution into a ruckus affair. Although there is much earnestness to these songs they never get soppy thanks in great part to the uproariously contagious pacing of the music. It’s a lovely combination of heart and foot that will win over ears.