Monday, October 26, 2009

Stomp and clap but sigh no more - Mumford & Sons

Sigh No More, the debut album of English folk-rock quartet, Mumford & Sons, is something that I actually discovered myself after having seen, and been pretty blown away by, one of its songs ‘Little Lion Man’ on ABC TV’s rage a couple of weeks ago. So today, totally unable to find any of the albums that my usual partners in crime had recommended to me, I bought this one instead. And I am encouraged by just how good my judgement has turned out to be.

Sigh No More sets its cards on the table in the very first track – the album’s title track – with a song that starts off almost bare, and with slow, soft harmonies against a minimalist guitar accompaniment. But then it detonates in an explosion country folk rock that is simply bubbling over with energy and life.

It’s how most of the songs on this album go, building big things out of little things. It’s a formula that works well and that certainly bears repeating and, before long, you find you are waiting for those explosions of music just to see how the little simple, hesitant, almost naïve tunes and rhythms will be transformed this time.

And the transformation always seems to work miracles, turning the simple into the grand, the hesitant into the sure, the naïve into the wise, and you find you’re stomping your feet and clapping your hands, and everything is off and running to great eruptions of banjo, acoustic guitars, dobro, double bass, keyboards and drums.

There really is some fantastic playing here – full of earthy bass drum beats, plucking on banjo and guitar that bursts with vigour, keyboards clanging and dancing, and all of it integrating into music that sounds like the ground, the trees, the grass and the fresh country air have all been turned into a massive rustic choir.

And while it’s true that most of the songs on Sigh No More are kind of similar in their structure and sound, with the almost constant exchange between the quiet, simple bits and the big, noisy bits, it works – probably largely because it just sounds so irresistibly good.

But it also works because the subtle things that give each song its own character really are more significant than you might at first notice them to be – like the way ‘I Gave You All’ builds from its sad beginnings into a raging lament of almost cosmic proportions; or the way the guitars keep bubbling beneath the surface, aching to break through the song of gentle consolation with all their passion and fire in ‘Timshel’; or the way that wonderful quartet tangles and jangles downwards to “Rain down, rain down on me” in ‘Thistle and Weeds’; or the way everything just builds up into a wild, grim whirlwind of music in ‘Dust Bowl Dance’.

Sigh No More is a very spiritual album, with lines about grace and about connection to the maker and kneeling before the king – but its music stops it from being a narrow spirituality, turning it instead into something that feels more about that dimension in all of us that seeks solace and redemption in times of loss and despair.

The album closes with ‘After the Storm’ where, at the words “Night has always pushed up the day”, the music turns magically into dappled sunshine. And its parting words (“But there’ll come a time you’ll see/With no more tears/And love will not break your heart/But dismiss your fears/Get over the hill and see, what you find there/With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair”) are sung with such down-to-earth beauty that you can’t help believing in them.

And then you notice that the album has finished, and your foot has stopped stomping, your hands have stopped clapping and you are left with a warm feeling in your heart and perhaps just the slightest hint of a tear in your eye.

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