The term “folk revival” usually conjures up images of Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio in the 1960s, but there’s a much more recent manifestation of folk music making inroads into the indie rock scene. And it’s not quite what used to be called folk rock, either. The British band Mumford & Sons is one of the best examples of this 21st-century hybrid.
Singer-songwriter Marcus Mumford isn’t really the leader of Mumford & Sons. Nor are the other members – Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, and Ted Dwane – his sons. They just liked the old-timey ring of using a family name. With Mumford as the lead singer on guitar and mandolin, Lovett usually covers drums and keyboards (including accordion), Dwane is most often found on electric bass; and Marshall is the go-to guy for banjo and various types of guitars, including the all-metal resonator.
The band formed in 2007 as one of the indie groups in West London exploring acoustic folk roots. Before this, all of them had played together in the backup band for Laura Marling, with whom they continued to tour under the Mumford name. Unlike the folk revival of the 1960s, the West London scene had no clear-cut socio-political charge; it also was more about using folk sounds for new music than about digging up and performing traditional songs.
Having signed with Island records, they released their debut, Sigh No More, in 2009. It was produced by Markus Dravs, known for his work with many major artists including Coldplay, Arcade Fire, and Björk. While the album took over a year to catch on in the US, it did eventually reach the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200, and the single “Little Lion Man” went to the all the way to the top of the indie/alternative chart.
The 6/8 meter and the wistful, back-to-the-earth lyrics of “Dust Bowl Dance” make a good introduction to Mumford & Sons’ style. Acoustic piano connects the piece to an older version of rock, while the plunking of banjo calls up quite a different tradition. But by the end, it’s billowed into a grinding, hard-rock sound, and the result is reminiscent of The Pogues.
Although Mumford & Sons have not been prolific – they take several years between albums and clearly have a meticulous work ethic – they do keep busy with projects outside the studio that they deem important. For example, they founded a company called Gentlemen of the Road in 2009. Besides being a record label, its function is to facilitate concertizing in places that can’t normally support a major act on tour. The purpose is to provide an economic boost to local businesses.
Once the record label arm of Gentlemen of the Road was up and running, the band recorded Babel (2012). It was a number one hit right out of the gate. The lead single, “I Will Wait,” did very well, encouraging them to release half the album as singles over the coming weeks. They have continued this practice for subsequent albums, taking advantage of the unique possibilities of streaming technology to get listeners interested in their work.
Babel won Album of the Year at the 2013 Grammy Awards, one of the band’s two Grammys that year. The other was for their participation in the movie soundtrack for the concert film-cum-cross country documentary Big Easy Express, directed by Emmett Malloy. They shared this award with fellow indie-folk groups Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Babel’s strengths lie in its intense, poetic lyrics and the use of dynamics, from a thin, delicate pianissimo to massive, organ-like sonorities. Expect a torrent of emotion and romanticism in the 19th century sense of life’s noble suffering. “Ghosts That We Knew” is a gentle, aching ballad. The sound production, immediate and intimate, gives the simple harmony extra power.
A co-release by their own label and Island Records/Glassnote, Wilder Mind (2015) represents a change in the Mumford sound. Some critics complained that the band strayed too far from its folk roots and were now blending in with other, less distinctive indie rock groups. But this album gave the musicians a chance to solidify their rock bona fides; their folk bona fides were never in question. Plus, they could still rely on their distinctively emotional and poetic lyrical content.
The lyrics of “Broad-Shouldered Beasts” brings together the mundane strain of urban living with quasi-fantastical imagery. For its part, the music supports that dichotomy, its dissonances muted and silky.
Although it took three years for the next full-length album to come out, Mumford kept busy with touring, relieved by some collaborative time in the studio. During a trip to South Africa, the band recorded the EP Johannesburg (2016) with a few outstanding African musicians: the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, a South African pop band called Beatenberg, and Esau Mumwaio, a Malawi singer who collaborates with British production duo Radioclit on a project called The Very Best.
Maal and The Very Best are featured with the band on “Si Tu Veux.” Maal’s celestial, ringing voice swirls around Mumford’s breathy chorus and haunting instrumentals.
Mumford did continue its string of full-length albums. Unfortunately, the title of the most recent, Delta, now has connotations that were unimaginable when it was released in 2018. But try not to let that distract you. Of the band’s four albums, it was the third to hit the No. 1 spot on American charts, and some of the tracks are infectious in the best possible way.
Whether it was a response to criticism of Wilder Mind or just the natural development of their style, on Delta the band brought back the banjo and other folk gear. Only, according to interviews with Mumford, they were determined to find non-conventional ways of using those instruments. There’s also an introspective element to the songs and the sound, with shades of Peter Gabriel and a nod to the lo-fi movement that allows and even celebrates the squeaks and clicks made in the act of playing an instrument. “The Wild” is a good example, ethereal pizzicato strings and all.
It’s been three years since Delta came out. Things took a drastic turn for the band in March 2021, when Winston Marshall caused an internet uproar for supporting a book by right-wing personality Andy Ngo; the fallout was so severe that Marshall subsequently quit. He has yet to be replaced.
Still, there’s no reason to think this is the end of Mumford & Sons, even in the absence of word on an upcoming album. The band has always taken its time to craft recordings, like a cooper who forms whiskey barrels out of hand-cured wooden slats or a barber who still uses hot towels and a straight razor. For those who appreciate the old ways, it’s worth waiting for a quality product.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stefan Schäfer, Lich.