Marcus Mumford has cited his major influences as the Old Crow Medicine Show and Emmylou Harris, and is known to have listened to a lot of Bob Dylan as a teenager. The band are famous for the highbrow literary references they sprinkle into their work, often alluding to classical literature such as The Odyssey and Shakespeare.
The band began as part of an emerging London folk scene and were signed by Island Records in 2009. Since then, the band have released three studios albums to great acclaim, Sigh No More (2009), Babel (2012), for which they won the Album of the Year Grammy award, and Wilder Mind (2015). Mumford are well known for their use of banjo and caused outcry among fans by omitting the instrument from their third, most recent, album, which has a notably heavier sound.
Despite this slight change in direction, the band’s passionate fan base shows no sign of shrinking, and it seems obvious that the band’s impressive momentum won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
# 10 – Winter Winds
Although the title sounds like something from Game of Thrones, the optimistic and joyful instrumental of Winter Winds couldn’t be further away from the bleakness of Westeros. In fact, there really is something unmistakably festive about the song; with its merry banjo and orchestral melodies somehow recalling the pleasure of a warm cup of mulled wine during the winter months. It’s almost like an atheist, folk rock version of a Christmas carol – like a modern day version of the Pogue’s Fairytale of New York.
Lyrically, the song sees Marcus Mumford reflect on a past relationship which his heart told him not to develop, despite what his brain felt he needed. Despite this potentially sad storyline – and references to plague and pestilence – there remains an undeniably warm heart to the song, with its lush banjo chords perfectly complimented by some gorgeous brass notes. It’s this brass which elevates the song to an almost euphoric level, especially when paired with the track’s catchy, unforgettable chorus (something which the band always excel at producing). At one point during the song’s crescendo, all vocals and instruments except the brass suddenly stop, giving the latter a chance to truly shine. It is at this point in the band’s second single that many fans realized Mumford & Sons were something truly special and unique.
Perhaps this song is so successful because it manages to create a genuinely holiday-like atmosphere without sounding corny or derivative – something which many inferior bands have tried but failed to achieve. Even Ebenezer Scrooge himself couldn’t fail to be moved by Winds of Winter.
# 9 – Lover of the Light
The second single from the band’s second album, this indie folk track is a contemporary crash course in how to build momentum. The song starts slowly, with nothing but simple guitar chords and Marcus’ gravelly voice. In fact, at this point, the listener could be fooled into thinking that this is going to be a slow ballad, at least until the exuberant drums and some triumphant piano notes enter the mix. From then on, it’s a steady build up of different sounds and instruments until the song reaches its end, with every new verse or chorus introducing a new element to the track’s building soundscape. Just as you think the song can go no further, the bridge slows things back down to the minimalist atmosphere of the opening, and a pleasant banjo solo segues into another build up of instruments, before erupting into an energetic and exultant finale. This Springsteen-esque payoff is a masterstroke, taking listeners on a journey not dissimilar to that of the lovers described in the track, who seem to be on the cusp of entering a relationship.
The songs accompanying music video is a confusing and curious thing, which – as is often the way – bears no relation to the song’s lyrics. Still, the fact that it was co-directed by film star Idris Elba (who also stars in the video) should give you some idea of the kind of cool and impressive reputation the band had built up by their second record. Still, music video aside, Lovers of the Light is a charming musical roller-coaster which cannot be missed.
# 8 – Ditmas
Although the announcement that the band’s ever faithful banjos would be absent from their third album – and were to be replaced with electric guitar – was met with disapproval, fans need not have panicked. Ditmas (named after a park in Brooklyn) sounds exactly how you’d imagine a Mumford track with electric guitars to sound. That’s not a criticism of the song; it’s a simple fact; Ditmas manages to retain the essence of what made Mumford great – in particular, the band’s sing-along, melodious choruses – while abandoning their trademark instrument. Here, rather than the plinky-plonk simplicity of the banjo, the song growls with the more robust notes of an electric guitar complimented by a full drum kit.
The new instrumentation is not the only notable growth displayed on this track. Indeed, astute listeners will pick up on the fact that Marcus seems to be moving away from his verbose and literary lyrics, focusing instead on using more open, honest and relatable language. This is particularly appropriate for Ditmas, which reflects on a failed relationship, and, perhaps for the first time, Marcus actually sounds angry.
Ditmas displays an inevitable growth of the band’s sound. Clearly, there was only so much banjo the band were prepared to put up with, and this track represents not just a move towards more traditional rock but also a refreshing frankness not veiled by references to high culture.
# 7 – Snake Eyes
This atmospheric track comes from Wilder Mind, and, in terms of structure, is somewhat of an older, broodier big brother to Lover of the Light. However, while that track builds to an elated atmosphere, Snake Eyes develops from a simple introduction to a harsh and brittle crescendo, maintaining a creepy, almost threatening feel throughout. Similarly, whilst Ditmas is very much a reassurance that what fans love about the band is still there, Snake Eyes is brilliant in how alienating it is, lacking a particularly catchy chorus and eventually kicking listeners in the face with a hard rock drop, with trilling guitar runs and downright aggressive drums.
Another new element the band added were synth chords. These are hinted at during the first pre-chorus, sounding like ghostly apparitions, before returning during the third verse in the form of a subtle space-age robot-like riff. The song was released as a pre-album promo single, and the fact that Mumford showcased their new sound in this way would certainly have made listeners question whether this was indeed the band they knew and loved.
There can be no doubt that, by making Snake Eyes one of the first songs that fans would hear from the new record, Mumford were making some kind of statement; letting this urgent and ominous song serve as a warning for existing fans to leave their expectations at the door.
# 6 – Roll Away Your Stone
Given that his parents are leaders of a branch of evangelical Christianity, it should come as no surprise that religion would play some part in Marcus Mumford’s life. As the title suggests, Roll Away Your Stone contains some of the most blatant references to Christianity in the Mumford canon, and yet the lyrics show that Marcus – who has always rejected the Christian rock label – simply wishes to discuss his struggles with Christian ideals, rather than act as a missionary for a religion which, based on various soundbites from throughout his career, he does not seem to be fully on board with.
The song begins with a gorgeous instrumental version of an Irish jig which is so charming and beautiful that you can be sure that countless brides have selected it as the music to walk down the aisle to. Following this, the true intro begins, starting with a slow and peaceful first verse before some jaunty, upbeat banjo chords begin. In fact, this could be described as the Mumford banjo song, with the instrument being so central and impressive that it’s not hard to see why it became so irrefutably linked with the band.
The chorus – open to interpretation though it is – seems to see Marcus discuss the fact that it seems unfair for the Bible to label certain things as dark and evil when, in fact, there is nothing wrong with them. He even goes as far as to admit that he himself spends a lot of time thinking about, and doing things which he knows are labeled as wrong and sinful. This is an alarmingly honest and brave admission to make, especially since religion is something usually deemed so highly personal.
This track cemented Mumford not just as legitimate musicians, but as genuinely interesting lyricists with something different – and important – to say.
# 5 – Tomkins Square Park
The opening track of Wilder Mind, “Tomkins Square Park,” is named after yet another park in New York City, and it begins with a dreamy indie-rock intro; a hazy sound led by fraught guitar screeches, perfectly suited to the song’s narrative. The story of the song tells of a couple meeting in the track’s titular park; it is seemingly the last time they will see each other before going their separate ways. In fact, perfect for the song’s murky atmosphere, the lyrics suggest the protagonist plans to disappear into the night after this final rendezvous.
Despite the song’s downtempo vibe, its chorus is rather contagious, sounding like a surprisingly catchy romp in contrast to the rest of the song. It seems obvious from the lyrics that the woman in the relationship is less happy about the breakup than the guy, as she seems to want to discuss the situation and fight for the relationship. The band address the futility of this in a particularly smart way, with the second chorus being of extended length and discussing how having the same conversation over and over again will only delay the inevitable. Although the lyrics are different, the melody of this second chorus is exactly the same, underlining how repetition and going round in circles will get you nowhere and lead to nothing useful or interesting.
It’s nice to see the band having fun with the interplay between music and lyrics, and it suggests a real confidence in their new sound. This pensive, honest, and, comparatively, gentle track was a perfect choice to open the band’s controversial third album.
# 4 – Babel
Mumford’s second album, of which this is the intro and title track, was self-described as “evolution not revolution,” and this perfectly captures what makes Babel so good. The song takes everything great about the band’s previous work and sharpens and refines it in ways you didn’t even realize were possible, let alone necessary. What is immediately noticeable is the richness of the track’s production. That’s not to say that the previous album sounded in any way bad, but there is a certain cleanness and clarity which makes Babel sound so much more present and slick. It’s hard to pinpoint just what exactly has changed, but it is an undeniable improvement.
Similarly, the band’s much-discussed banjo sound is, of course, present here, merrily chugging along, yet somehow sounding more confident, self-assured and cool than before. Likewise, Marcus’ gravelly tones are suitably impassioned, with Babel’s instrumental not being afraid to strip itself down to nothing and let the singer’s voice take center stage.
As the title suggests, the song concerns itself with The Tower of Babel, a biblical fable which highlights the importance of being humble and not getting above one’s station. Is it possible that this was a statement of the band’s intent not to let their new found fame, success and wealth go to their heads?
Regardless of the intent behind the song, there can be no doubt that Babel is a perfect refinement of Mumford’s established and hugely successful sound.
# 3 – Little Lion Man
The phrase “aggressive banjo” might sound like somewhat of an oxymoron, yet this is the perfect description for Sigh No More’s Little Lion Man. Marcus Mumford has been understandably guarded about what influenced this track, which he has described as having a very personal story, but, given the song’s apologetic and self-critical lyrics, it doesn’t take much to work out that he seems to have wronged somebody. While usually the banjo is a joyful or serene sound, it is repurposed on this track to sound both powerful and passionate, so is perfectly suited to the song’s emotional fierceness.
This evocative and intense atmosphere is underlined by the repeated use of a curse word during the song’s chorus. This is something which the band usually avoid, but it is used here to great effect, punctuating the song with emotive edge. As with most Mumford tracks, the chorus is truly a highlight, being effortlessly memorable and relatable. The listener can really feel the conviction in Marcus’ voice, so it’s obvious that he is singing the remorseful chorus to a specific person, something which is underlined by the choruses final manifestation, which removes all but his vocals from the track, as if highlighting the sincerity of his words.
On an album of jaunty folk track, Little Lion Man’s more immediate sound helps it to stand out, yet it does so without ruining the coherence of the band’s incredible debut album.
# 2 – I Will Wait
Although it has become such a cliche, Mumford really do have to be seen in a live setting to truly appreciate what they do. Their gigs have a real community feel to them, like a joyous union of like-minded people. This atmosphere really helps elevate their work to a new plane of feeling, where the positive, buoyant and earthy vibes make you feel like anything is possible. Nowhere is this more evident than during a live performance of I Will Wait, where banjo strumming and a fiendishly catchy chorus work together to create a gleeful utopia of love and joy which has to be seen to be believed.
Although some read the lyrics as having religious connotations, simply taking them at face value makes the song much more enjoyable, with the narrative simply being about a man so in love with someone that he will wait forever, and withstand anything, to be with them.
For a change, it’s not just the banjo which deserves special mention here, Ben Lovett’s accordion deserves a shout out as well. While not as associated with Mumford as the banjo, the accordion is an instrument the band have regularly utilized in their music, and it works particularly well here as a perfect accompaniment to the calm and soaring vocals.
The lead single from the band’s second album, I Will Wait served as an effective reintroduction to the band’s distinct sound, blending a sweet and soulful sing-along chorus with one of the band’s remarkable folk instrumentals.
# 1 – The Cave
This multiple-Grammy nominated track was the third single from Sigh No More, and it is one of the band’s best-known songs. The Cave has become famous for its huge chorus, which has become somewhat of a music festival essential, with its epic sing-along vocal hooks serving as the perfect candidate for the kind of euphoric shared experience that is unique to festivals.
Each chorus builds upon the momentum of the last, giving the song a feel of vast scope; as if it’s really taking the listener on a journey. The first chorus is rather modest and calm, at first featuring just Marcus with no backing vocals, however, by its second iteration the backings and banjo are much more prominent. This is nothing compared to the third and final chorus, which is an all-out party full of rapturous exhilaration, even featuring some triumphant brass notes which really take the song’s finale somewhere special.
You might assume that the titular Cave refers to the tomb of Jesus; however, it is generally accepted that it references that of St Francis of Assisi or Plato. Either way, the title is a reference to a fundamental paradigm shift. This seems very appropriate, since Mumford’s banjo-laden, folk-inspired sound turned the music industry upside-down, giving folk not just a mainstream presence, but a legitimately cool one, with tracks like this at the center of the folk renaissance.
Although the band’s third album saw their sound evolve, they still kept true to the essence of Mumford, with catchy hooks and clever lyrics. Only time will tell what the band’s fourth record sounds like, but there can be no doubt that the future will see them continue to create an impressive musical legacy.
Updated Nov 9, 2020