I’m of two minds about Mumford & Sons’ debut album, Sigh No More. If you played me a single track from the album – any track at all, mind you – I would say to you “I would love to hear this album!” Every single track, digested in a single bite, is delicious. If you fed me four songs from the LP – any four songs, mind you – I would say “I am going to love this album!” The songs are consistently good, and taken in a reasonable portion they hit the spot.
So why, after listening to the album in its entirety multiple times, am I uncomfortably full? I find myself pushing away from the table having eaten a few bites too many, engorged and over-sated. To use a cliché, the album is just a little too much of a good thing.
Take, for example, the album’s title track, the opening tune. On a normal album, a song like “Sigh No More” would be a zenith, an epic climax that became the focal track of the record. In the context of Sigh No More the album, however, it is merely the first in a series of slow starting, crescendo-ing tracks that drop away to nearly a cappella breaks before building back to a finish. Mumford & Sons has identified the formula used so well (sparingly) by bands like Arcade Fire and Freelance Whales, and they have replicated it beautifully. On every song.
In essence, over the course of Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons plays itself out. Because each song follows the same parabola, my ears feel like they’re walking down familiar paths on each new tune. By the time the album’s twelve songs have come to a close, I’ve heard the same structure repeated so many times that it feels like I’ve listened to a handful of songs three times each. After five listens, it feels like I’ve had this album on repeat for a month. It’s predictable and programmatic, which frustrates me to no end.
Because here’s the thing – there isn’t anything bad about the album. Who am I to begrudge an album full of epic moments and grandiose soars? Lead singer Marcus Mumford has a great voice - not dissimilar to Noah and the Whales’ Charlie Fink’s – and his lyrics are wonderful. Winston Marshall plays a mean banjo, and I’m a sucker for that instrument in any context. “Lion Little Man” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in a long time. The album’s downfall is that it always strives for monumental – after eating steak for dinner every night, doesn’t it lose some of its appeal?
When Mumford & Sons step away from the pomp, they’re still really damn good. Their sound has a polished grit to it which, when combined with layered vocal harmonies, instantly hooks me. They don’t always need to shoot for movie trailers and epic peaks. “Awake My Soul” shows them in a slower, more introspective light for a brief moment, and it’s a stellar track. “Roll Away Your Stone” lets Mumford ease off on the vocals for a bit, and the song shines through nicely. There are glimpses here and there of a band that can take many forms and excel at all of them.
But in the end, Sigh No More just plain wears me out. Is it worth listening to? Absolutely. Will I keep its tracks in rotation in the months to come? Absolutely. But I will do it in moderation, providing the filter that should have been applied to the album prior to release. By overplaying the formula for brilliance, Mumford & Sons have cheapened it to my ears, transforming greatness into grating. Strip away the scaffolding of colossally structured songs, and show me what’s underneath. 71/100