A mystery, that’s what you could call the meaning of Mumford & Sons’ lyrics. Only since the release of the Delta album last year did frontman Marcus Mumford give some explanation about them. Before that, we just had to make do with vague hints.
Since the British folk-rock band is currently on their Delta Tour and visiting many festivals this summer, and since nothing makes the experience of a concert as intense as when you know what an artist is actually singing about, I have taken on the challenge of interpreting their music. This time, I can’t get around speculating what the music is about, but that doesn’t make it any less fun!
Mumford and.. who?
10 years ago, Marcus Mumford, Winston Marshall, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane broke through internationally with Little Lion Man. Meanwhile, Mumford & Sons have recorded 4 studio albums, 3 live albums and a mini album and have sold millions of albums worldwide.
They have also won many prestigious awards, were allowed to perform with none other than Bob Dylan during the Grammy Awards in 2011 and played for Barack Obama in the White House. On top of that, they have left lasting impressions on the audience at the festivals where they headlined.
Why the name Mumford & Sons, you might wonder? It was supposedly chosen because Marcus Mumford was the most prominent band member in the early days and because the vibe of the name was that of an old-fashioned family business. Surprisingly, the band regrets it. In an interview with Radio X the front man calls it ‘rubbish’ and says:
“You never really think about it when you’re in the pub, you’ve done your first rehearsal, you’ve written your first song and someone’s like: ‘you need a band name now’”.
They did, however, put a lot of thought into their lyrics. With that being said, we present an interpretation of five of their big hits:
5. Little Lion Man (Sigh No More, 2009)
As mentioned earlier, Mumford & Sons’ breakthrough came with Little Lion Man. To this day, the meaning of this song is still a mystery, but we now know why. In an interview Marcus says:
“It’s a very personal story, so I won’t elaborate upon it too much. Suffice to say, it was a situation in my life I wasn’t very happy with or proud of… and sometimes when you can’t describe a feeling with your own words, it’s almost easier to express in a song.”
You can read that it is based on a difficult situation in the lyrics:
Weep for yourself, my man
You’ll never be what is in your heart
Weep Little Lion Man
You’re not as brave as you were at the start
Rate yourself and rake yourself
Take all the courage you have left
And wasted on fixing all the problems
That you made in your own head
It has been speculated that “Little Lion Man” refers to Yvain, the Knight of the Lion – a Knight of the Round Table. He appears in a 12th century poem in which he is rejected by his wife because he failed to keep his promise. The knight then performed several heroic deeds to win her back again. As far as we know it has never been confirmed by the Mumfords that this is what the song is actually about, but it seems reasonable, right?
But 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?
Little Lion Man – Mumford & Sons
The band actually had no intention of releasing this song on their debut album. There was even objection from within the music industry on using the f-word and the band was asked to replace it, but in an interview Marcus states:
“We tried it and it was just horrible, it didn’t work at all. But I now have my parents agreeing with me as well. My mum’s justifying it to people: ‘There’s no other word that fits, it has to be that one!”
4. Lover Of The Light (Babel, 2012)
Lover Of The Light is just as multi-interpretable as the previous song in this list, but seems to be more positive. Here, Mumford tries to persuade someone to choose him:
And in the middle of the night
I may watch you go
There’ll be no value in the strength
Of walls that I have grown
There’ll be no comfort in the shade
Of the shadows thrown
But I’d be yours if you’d be mine
Stretch out my life
And pick the seams out
Take what you like
But close my ears and eyes
Watch me stumble over and over
I had done wrong
You built your tower
But call me home
And I will build a throne
And wash my eyes out never again
But love the one you hold
And I’ll be your gold
To have and to hold
A lover of the light
Lover Of The Light – Mumford & Sons
Not a single interview can be found about this hit either, but Mumford did release a statement about the message in its accompanying video clip.
The video is directed by actor Idris Elba, who also plays the lead role. In an interview with MTV Mumford says:
“Firstly, we wouldn’t be in it, which is a real relief to us, and secondly, it would be kind of observational, rather than narrative. Some people don’t really understand it, which is great, because all that we do is very understandable … so it’s nice to have something that’s a little more challenging to understand.”
But if Mumford is very honest, he is also not sure whether he understands the message right. Laughing, he says:
“I think we understand it, I think we do. But [Elba] was great, we sat and talked and shared some ideas and visions, and he’s one of our favourite actors as well.”
3. Believe (Wilder Mind, 2015)
Mumford grew up in what he called in an interview with Rolling Stone a ‘Biblical environment’. His parents are the founders of a British branch of the “Vineyard”, an evangelical Christian movement. Despite his upbringing, he has gone down his own path.
In an interview on the Babel album with Big Issue Mumford describes his spirituality:
“I don’t even call myself a Christian, spirituality is the word we engage with more. We’re fans of faith, no religion. We’re just writing songs that ask questions. Sometimes the best way to go about exploring a question, things we wouldn’t necessarily talk about in conversation, is by writing a song.”
And he has done that repeatedly! Songs like Awake My Soul, Below My Feet, Sigh No More en Broken Crown all contain religious references. It is also thought that Believe is a reflection on the significance of religion for him. Others say that this is simply about a relationship.
You may call it in this evening
But you’ve only lost the night
Present all your pretty feelings
May they comfort you tonight
And I’m climbing over something
And I’m running through these walls
I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
Everything you’re trying to say to me
Believe – Mumford & Sons
I think this can be explained in two ways and we can only guess what inspired the song.
The mystery goes on while in a different interview with Rolling Stone, Mumford says that it was actually the other band members who wrote the first draft of the lyrics. Based on this, do you think that we can conclude that Believe is actually not at all about Marcus Mumford’s religious beliefs?
2. Guiding Light (Delta, 2018)
In recent years the band has been at home more often and the men have had more time to spend with friends and family. You can hear that in their lyrics. In an interview with NME Mumford explains what Guiding Light is about:
“It’s autobiographical, we write about our lives. And that particular song, Guiding Light, is sort of both the idea of being the comforter and the comforted. And companionship. It’s kind of about friendship and brotherhood.”
All day permanent red
The glaze on my eyes
When I heard your voice
The distance caught me by surprise again
And I know you claim that you’re alright
But fix your eyes on me
I guess I’m all you have
And I swear you’ll see the dawn again
Well I know I had it all on the line
But don’t just sit with folded hands and become blind
‘Cause even when there is no star in sight
You’ll always be my only guiding light
Guiding Light – Mumford & Sons
Isn’t that inspiring?
1. Beloved (Delta, 2018)
In an interview with The Guardian you can read that Beloved, one of the most moving songs on Delta, is inspired by a moment that had a lot of impact on Mumford. It is based on the time that he sat by his grandmother’s side when she passed away. In the interview, he called this a “chilling” moment.
In the lyrics of Beloved he describes it so expressively that you can almost get the feeling that you are there, with them, yourself:
Austere enthroned in white grandeur
But tired and shift
A whisper of wayward silver hair
From your eyes
I’d never seen you unkempt before
As you whispered “Darling close the door”
How have I not made a note of every word
You ever said?
And time, is not on our side
But I’ll pretend that it’s alright
She says the Lord has a plan
But admits it’s pretty hard to understand
Before you leave you must know you are beloved
And before you leave, remember I was with you
Beloved – Mumford And Sons
He elaborated on this on Instagram, explaining:
“Of course, everyone knows loss in one way or another. This song is about that. I’d never sat with anyone as they died before, and it had an effect on me. As it does everyone I know who has experienced it.
But there’s wildness and beauty in it as well, and a deep honouring, that became the beginnings of this song that we worked up called Beloved.
I feel determined for people to take whatever they want from it, and not to be emotionally prescriptive. But here it is.”
Soundtrack of life
The lyrics of Mumford & Sons may be multi-interpretable, and with good reason. In a press release on Delta, Marcus states that he finds it important for people to recognise themselves in his lyrics:
“I’m just trying to soundtrack people’s lives. And not their whole lives, but a period of their life. So many people have said, ‘We got married to one of your songs.’ Or, ‘This song [of yours] was playing when we had a baby’ or ‘the first time we fucked’—which has happened quite a lot.
So, I hope [Delta] can connect with people. It doesn’t need to be liked by everyone—if it was, then taste would no longer exist. But people knowing that these songs are written honestly is important to me, that it wasn’t some sort of fabrication.”
And if you look closely at the fragile, but at the same time powerful texts above, how can you not take his word for it?
Want to read more?
We have explored the meaning of lyrics in way more artists’ lyrics. Are you curious what are singing about? Check them here.
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– Little Lion Man is written by Benjamin Walter David Lovett / Edward James Milton Dwane / Marcus Oliver Johnstone Mumford / Winston Aubrey Aladar Marshall © Universal Music Publishing Group, 2009.
– Lover of the Light is written by Benjamin Walter David Lovett / Edward James Milton Dwane / Marcus Oliver Johnstone Mumford / Winston Aubrey Aladar Marshall © Universal Music Publishing Group, 2012.
– Believe is written by Benjamin Walter David Lovett / Edward James Milton Dwane / Marcus Oliver Johnstone Mumford / Winston Aubrey Aladar Marshall © Universal Music Publishing Group, 2015.
– Guiding Light is written by Benjamin Walter David Lovett / Edward James Milton Dwane / Marcus Oliver Johnstone Mumford / Winston Aubrey Aladar Marshall © Universal Music Publishing Group, 2018.
– Beloved is written by Benjamin Walter David Lovett / Edward James Milton Dwane / Marcus Oliver Johnstone Mumford / Winston Aubrey Aladar Marshall © Universal Music Publishing Group, 2018.
📸: Gavin Batty