Mumford and Sons, 'Babel'
By Luke Larsen
September 25, 2012
Luke Larsen is tech editor at Paste Magazine, freelance writer extraordinaire, and youth worship leader at Sunset Presbyterian Church in Portland, Ore. Tweet at him @lalarsen11.
Like The Killers and Foster The People, Mumford and Sons is one of those poor little indie bands that just never got to be indie.
The moment their debut full-length album Sigh No More dropped in the States, this folk pop quartet from England were instantly launched into the stratosphere of mainstream popularity. In 2010 and 2011, when mainstream-minded people thought "folk" or "indie" or "banjos", they thought Mumford and Sons. A RELEVANT Album of the Year award and a few Grammy nominations later, Mumford and Sons have now released their highly anticipated followup, Babel.
So here we have it: 12 more quasi-Christian pop hymns, once again filled to the brim with raggedy acoustic guitars, upbeat kick drums, and the band's infamous banjo plucking. To no one’s surprise, Babel sounds remarkably similar to Sigh No More. There are some nice touches here and there -- most notably that the mix has a bit more space in it, the other band members are featured a bit more prominently, and the thematic material feels a bit darker. But don't be surprised when you do a double-take after hearing the palm muted acoustic guitars and "The Edge-gone-bluegrass" banjo playing in songs like "I Will Wait" and "Whispers in the Dark".
The good news is that the album succeeds in all the same ways that Sigh No More did. Songs like "I Will Wait" and "Holland Road" will get your toes tapping, while tracks like "Hopeless Wanderer" and "Lover of the Light" will make you want to move out if that trendy city you live in and settle down with some chickens and a flannel button-up. "Babel", the rambunctious opener that begins the album, shows a Marcus Mumford who even sounds a bit more daring vocally.
"Cuz' I know my weakness know my voice, but I believe in grace and choice/And I know perhaps my heart is farce, but I’ll be born without a mask," he sings, full of a humble confidence.
Mumford and Sons has never been about keeping all their i's dotted and their t's crossed. They never had the songwriting precision of The Avett Brothers or the melodic nuance of Fleet Foxes. And maybe those bands deserve some of the popularity that Mumford and Sons has run off with. But it's the honest passion that Mumford and Sons brings forth that draws people to them. You won't catch them pretending to be something they're not and nowhere is that more true than on Babel.
Unfortunately, this also means that the album suffers from a number of the same problems that Sigh No More suffered from. Forgettable tracks like "Lovers' Eyes" and "Ghosts We Knew" have melodies and production choices that sound unforgivably similar (which also, of course, have their corresponding similarities with tracks from Sigh No More). But more than just over-familiarity, it often feels like Mumford and Sons get caught in some pretty cliche songwriting ruts that leave some of these tracks feeling awfully bland. One can only take so many rhyme couplings like "tongue/numb", "down/now", and "home/stone" until you start to wonder if Marcus is just picking them out of a hat. But I suppose that is part of the package you sign up with Mumford and Sons. These guys are all honest emotions -- despite how messy, nonsensical, cliche, and even self-contradicting they can appear at times.
There's always been something strangely contradictory about Mumford and Sons. Not only is a bluegrass-folk revival of any kind seemingly out of place in fast-paced technocratic culture we live in, the traditionally spiritual one Mumford and Sons recalls seems particularly unbefitting. In a nation whose church attendance has been dramatically falling since the 1950s, this London quartet’s honest dialogues about simpler life and faith are enough to catch any naysayer’s attention.
Marcus Mumford has always spoken about grace and love with a candor that few even in the Christian music market have been able to do. Faith, uncertainty, doubt, and love are all sides of the same dice for him and when he sings about it, you believe him. When he sings lines like "In this twilight how dare you speak of grace" or "Raise my hands, paint my spirit gold/Bow my head, keep my heart slow/'cus I will wait, I will wait for you", you just know he means it. You can tell that Marcus is a real guy with real beliefs and real struggles. And above all else, that is why I am perfectly okay with Mumford and Sons just being who they are.
Because success can definitely be a double-edged sword sometimes can’t it? Would Mumford and Sons have made a better, explorative, and more mature album if Sigh No More hadn’t erupted in popularity in the way it did? Perhaps.
But that doesn’t take away anything from the agreeable, catchy, and all around enjoyable folk pop album that Babel is.