Anytime someone tells me that “the next U2” is here, I know that I no longer need to pay attention to what they are about to say. There will not be, nor should there be, another U2. But when I heard Steve Stockman, author of Walk On—arguably the definitive book on U2—tell a group at Calvin College that Bono and The Edge can soon step aside because a new band that is rising in the UK is here, I felt I had to pay attention.
Mumford and Sons, with their debut album Sigh No More, are a far cry from being the biggest band on the planet, but they certainly are positioned as one of the best new ones. Paste describes their music as “A delicate fusion of vintage Americana and English folk.” If you have not heard it already from Fleet Foxes, welcome to the sound of neo-acoustica. In a time where banjo is the new black in indie music, Mumford and Sons sounds familiar but strikingly more significant.
While their sound is very different from U2, their ability to fuse musical excellence with lyrical mastery may just make them peers. Every track on Sigh No More has a line worth pondering. Songs that at first listen sound like love/relationship tunes quickly become gateways into the spiritual journey that Mumford is living. On “Roll Away Your Stone” Mumford offers up an unforgettable definition of grace: It seems that all my bridges have been burned / But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works / It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart / But the welcome I receive with every start.
“Awake My Soul” ends with the repeating lyric: You were made to meet your maker. While this sounds like it has been cherry picked from a Dirty Hairy or Terminator flick, it is likely a profession of Mumford’s narrative identity. Earlier in “Awake” Mumford declares: In the bodies we will live / In these bodies we will die / Where you invest your love / you invest your life. This is not simply a clever turn of phrase. Mumford and Sons are suggesting an entire way of seeing the world. Agree or disagree with them–that is your choice–but this band believes in a way of life.
Let us pause for a second to consider this idea. Do we only want to experience art that affirms our way of thinking living, or is there value in experiencing art that honestly seems to describe experiences different than our own? From Mumford and Sons unabashed lyrics, it seems that they are writing songs, not to appease listeners’ life philosophies, but to give listeners an experience they obviously feel to be true. Often it is the honesty we seek in art, not necessarily a reflection of our own understandings of life.
As Mumford and Sons attempts to create honest experiences you’ll find that on other tracks direct quotes are borrowed. Let the dead bury the dead, a line from “Thistle and Weeds,” is straight out of the mouth of Jesus’. Whatever their background, Mumford and Sons have a history with Biblical text and it oozes out of their tracks.
One of the more powerful moments on the album is the conclusion of “Timshel.” The song is about walking along side someone who is facing life’s hardest moments. The refrain beautifully sings a moving promise: You are not alone in this. But the track concludes abruptly with the confession, But I can’t move the mountains for you. It is this kind of honest telling of the story that makes their songs feel different from so many other bands. This song tells the truth—I will climb the mountain with you, but I cannot make the mountain go away. These are the kind of songs people lean into when life begins to toss and turn.
“After The Storm,” the closing track of the album, is the depiction of a man fearful of both what’s behind and what lies ahead. This may well be a metaphor for the where the band now stands. The number of bands that have put out one great album is impossible to count. Equally as numerous are the bands that put out a terrible second effort. Only time will tell if Mumford and Sons can continue to engage us with “music that matters.” If not, that may be just as well. It will take a lifetime to deal with all they have brought to us in their first and last Sigh.