Blame it on the Grammys. Although the British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons didn’t win either of the two awards they were nominated for, they performed alone and alongside Bob Dylan, who was barely audible as he growled the words to Maggie’s Farm. Belting out backing vocals and looking poised to snatch the title of torchbearers of classic Americana from the older singer, the band’s performance doubled US sales of their debut album Sigh No More, placing it second in the Billboard charts.
A month later, it was announced that the album had gone platinum, making Mumford & Sons the first British act since Coldplay to sell a million copies on both sides of the Atlantic. With the Arcade Fire producer back on board for their second album, expected to be cut by the end of the year, they are poised for superstardom.
A couple of years ago, Mumford & Sons looked like the underachievers of the “west London folk scene”, which is a loosely related group of artists who started out playing at Bosun’s Locker, a small pub in Chelsea. Among them were Laura Marling, who was hailed as the new Joni Mitchell on the release of her debut album in 2008, when she was only 19; and Charlie Fink, whose band Noah and the Whale reached number five in the UK charts with its own folky debut the same year.
All three acts have toured and collaborated together, but now it seems that the slowcoaches of the gang are outperforming the rest. Sigh No More did not look like it would make waves when it was first released in 2009, but its popularity has been steadily growing, and the band has since been variously pegged as the new Coldplay, Arcade Fire and U2.
It’s an album that operates at the level of both heart and head. The rhythms and melodies are simple and gutsy, based on the sort of American folk tunes that have been kicking around for half a century. All the band’s members sing, in a layered harmonic style that owes a debt to classic bluegrass, and the use of instruments such as banjos, accordions and a double bass adds to the old-timey feeling.
So far, so unoriginal, but one thing that raises Mumford & Sons above other young rock bands is their lyrical ambition. Many of their songs are inspired by literature: Steinbeck’s a favourite, and the songs Timshel and Dustbowl Dance drew from his books East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath respectively, while the album’s title track is based on a song in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
That might not sound like radio-friendly stuff, but Marcus Mumford’s lyrics are vague and grand-sounding enough to have mass appeal. Timshel does not deal directly with the moral wrangling that goes on in East of Eden, but settles for a tone of melancholy yearning and cosmic awe, with lines such as: “Death is at your doorstep/ And it will steal your innocence/ But it will not steal your substance.”
Dustbowl Dance tells the story of a Depression-era American farmer “kicked off my land at the age of 16”, covering the same sort of ground that Bob Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie did more than 70 years ago with his own Dust Bowl Ballads.
But while Guthrie himself was caught up in the Oklahoma dust storms of the 1930s, Mumford’s understanding comes from novels, and the fact that he sings in an American accent doesn’t help his case among detractors who question the authenticity of his work. But for every critic who points out that the posh London boys (still in their early twenties) have no business singing songs rooted in the American midwest there are legions of fans who are happy to get swept up in Mumford & Sons’ old-fashioned fantasy world.
Tickets are sold out for many dates on the band’s coming “Railroad Revival Tour” of the American south-west which will see the boys eat, sleep, travel and record music on a vintage 1950s railway carriage, stopping off for shows at such places as the Arizona Railway Museum and a car park in Austin, Texas. From there it will be on to festivals and a slot supporting Arcade Fire in Hyde Park, London, in June.
Mumford & Sons will certainly make the most of the momentum they’ve generated, and hopefully along the way they’ll find the confidence to sing about topics drawn from their own experience, in their own voices. It could be what turns them from a one-album wonder to a band that will inspire the next generation.
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