I’m a little suspicious of Mumford & Sons.
It’s not that I distrust the band’s skill or their (open scare quotes) “authenticity” (close scare quotes). It’s not that I don’t think they are who they say they are—a bunch of friends from London who went to school with some of the Noah and the Whale guys, who’ve served as Laura Marling’s occasional backing band over the last few years, who’ve been touted along with those friends as the vanguard of a new British folk movement, who are one of my favorite new musical discoveries of the year so far.
It’s not that I don’t think they’re real, because they’re certainly very real. They’re also just a bit creepy.
Their song “Little Lion Man” is what really gets me. And that’s the thing: It really gets me. It so nearly embodies so much of what I love about all of the music dearest to me in the world that I simply just don’t see how it could have come to exist by any coincidental and/or organic circumstances. It’s creepy the same way Genius playlists and Pandora stations and Netflix recommendations and sidebar ads in Gmail are creepy—algorithmically creepy, knowing and pointed in this automated, supra-human, super-correct way. But then it gets even weirder. Because instead of scanning my iTunes library or my “taste preferences” or the body of the email I just sent to my mom or whatever, they scanned, like, my brain or my heart—maybe even my soul, if it happened to be available. It’s as if they stole over from across the pond, came to my apartment and, in the dusky twilight, peeped in through my slightly-parted metaphysical mini-blinds and saw everything.
On a very basic level, this song exploits my love for romping banjo and maniacally-strummed acoustic guitar and some very wisely-used, emphatic but decidedly un-melodramatic piano. It also nicely plays on my attraction to raggedy voices singing in urgent harmony about life and love and hope and pride and messing up and being happy and moving on. But it also dallies with my passing interest in folk that’s little meatier, a little meaner, with its a bass line and kicky, walloping drum that both sneak in the back way and for a while seem kind of secondary to all the needy strings and voices pushing around up front. You’ll miss it completely if you’re listening on your crappy, treble-y laptop speakers, like I was at first. I mean, I love me some folky shit, but I am not used to it having a big back end, not used needing a subwoofer to get the true effect. And you won’t be missing much for the first part of the song, not until around two minutes and eighteen seconds in, when Marcus Mumford asks, for the second time, “Didn’t I, my dear?” and everything falls away except that dark, creeping thrum.
It could be the end of the song, really, for a lazier band. But it’s only for a moment. Then it all begins to trickle back in, reassembling itself around the low steady bass—trusty piano line, a bit of fluttering banjo, guitar, the metallic feedbacky squall that’s been howling around the back corners for a while—as Mumford begins to lead the band in a raggedy angel-band round of “aah’s,” which starts off lovely but quickly becomes a bit manic as everything around them begins to pick up more and more speed. This time it all seems poised to hang around for a while, but they’re building it all up again only to kick the trap door out again. Just after they all come back to the chorus there’s a beat, a split second of absolute silence, with just the vocals yearning into all the nothingness around them. It’s heart-stopping. It snaps off like a light, then back on for 10 seconds—all the instruments thrown together, flailing and furious—then off again, just voices and the chorus once more: “It was not your fault but mine / And it was your heart on the line / I really fucked it up this time / Didn’t I, my dear?”
There’s another beat and then the song ends with Mumford strumming out one gentle chord on his guitar and asking for what seems like the hundredth time, “Didn’t I, my dear?”—dropping his voice this time, so that it’s hardly a question anymore. It’s part confession to some crime I don’t know the nature of, part dare for me to not offer up a pardon—but how could I not, after all that? I’m in no place to judge or ration out forgiveness. I’m not sure where my own head is. I’m not sure I’m not still falling through the trap door that was just three times pulled out from under me.
And so, with the same unsettling prescience with which Gmail ads started flatly pushing antidepressants at me the summer after I graduated from college and Netflix recently urged me to accept the fact that I’m almost exclusively interested in Witty, Cerebral Foreign Dramas With Strong Female Leads and Goofy Horror, “Little Lion Man” has taught me two very important things. One is that music sounds better when I get a little snobby about what I listen to it on. The other is that I really, really love songs that pull me in with a lie and then flat-out emotionally manipulate me; songs that edge in and present themselves as one thing up front, make me think I can at least count on them for that, but then twist and slither into their real form with such sly disregard for my concept of reality that when the thing’s new truth presents itself it’s like the floor falls right out from under me; songs that know exactly how they just made my stomach drop down to my knees and know they’re about to do it again but never tell me when; songs that so sweetly beg forgiveness when it’s all said and done even though they know I’lld be in no shape to care about their transgressions by the end of it all.
I don’t even think I know any real people like that, and thank God. I’ve got Mumford & Sons in my life now. My creep quotient is filled—brilliantly, delightfully, fantastically filled. (And yours can be, too! Mumford & Sons’ wonderful debut LP, Sigh No More, is out in the U.S. tomorrow, Feb. 16. I can barely stop listening to “Little Lion Man” enough to give the other tracks a fair shot, but from what I can tell, they’re mostly all excellent as well.)
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.