Upon first glance of Marcus Mumford and his hokey band of fellow Brit folksters, not much has changed.
Even the idea of a percussionist is regarded as an unwelcome pipe dream to the bare bones quartet. Frontman Mumford is still proudly sporting a gravity-defying Flock of Seagulls coif, and this British quartet is still reeling about the trials of life and love with Emersonian limericks and generous doses of banjo melodies.
The release of the highly anticipated Babel symbolized a career power play for Mumford & Sons.The sophomore album is always a defining moment in an artist’s catalog—it holds the capacity to prove that the debut album’s success wasn’t a fluke, a testament that the band’s work merits relevance. By no means did the dandelion-crowned folk stars buckle under a sophomore slump; they still have the same stomp-the-barn sing-alongs and throat-scraping vocals.
Babel then is more of a plateau, a myriad of the tried-and-true Mumford & Sons transcendental trickery executed on a much grander scale and with some glittery flourishes.
The title track features a jangly banjo riff that couples with Mumford’s raspy growls in a magical, sepia-toned daydream. The track (one of the album’s shortest at just over three minutes long) wastes no time in building into what has become a distinctly Mumford & Sons symphony of organized chaos of Steinbeck imagery and dramatic vocal rips. The commanding stomp of a deliberate foot and the subtle acoustic guitar anchoring allow introspective lyrics like, “Cause 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,” to snatch the listener’s focus.
The album’s lead single, from which Mumford & Sons fans have been subsiding their rampant thirst for more cathartic folk-rock, “I Will Wait” is painfully reminiscent of the group’s chart shattering debut single “Little Lion Man.” The infectious down-by-the-bayou chant was heavily inspired by the band’s hectic touring lifestyle, a sentiment that pervades throughout the course of the nearly hour-long album.
The staccato guitar and curt lyrics usher a respectful nod toward the single, but Mumford’s generous slurs showcase an intent of restraint and gingerly applied artistic license. Laments of a “tethered mind” and commands to “raise my hands, paint my spirit gold” exert Mumford’s newly wrangled lyrical assertiveness in a masterfully crafted swirl of wistful revelry.
“Ghosts That We Knew” is a haunting canvas for Mumford’s quivering voice to creep to the forefront.
His tender cries are held with restraint and glittering with hesitant forthrightness, gathering some body from his silver-tongued band mates. The lingering unison offers the bolstering wisdom of a church choir as the tender finger picks of a banjo not lurking far in the aural distance. Eventually Mumford’s voice fades into the painstakingly fashioned chaos and leaves listeners with chills meandering up their spine and memories bubbling in their minds.
The album closes with “Not With Haste,” brimming with typical Mumford & Sons grandeur and violently oscillates between melancholic rawness and unrestrained potency. The control of the verses is quickly abandoned as the band builds into a thrashing crescendo charged with tension. Mumford seems to have successfully tamed his precocious beast of a voice and his band of nostalgia-lugging brothers contently construct intricate soundscapes so that discipline can shine. The dramatic jumps from sparse sonnet to bombastic ballad leave listeners a bit befuddled and without a sense of closure with the album.
Mumford & Sons carve Babel into a platform on which the band underscores its newly honed musical tenacity that has pushed the band’s boundaries from niche-genre royalty to a boldfaced sonic force to be reckoned with. Babel maintains just enough familiarity that fans are not intimidated by a departure from Mumford and Sons’ charmingly down-home sound, but the album does not squander its admitted inspirations.
It is the same old charmingly aged pickup, but with some flashy new hardware and artistic liberties to make it feel new.
Mumford & Sons – Babel tracklist:
- “Whispers in the Dark”
- “I Will Wait”
- “Holland Road”
- “Ghosts That We Knew”
- “Lover of the Light”
- “Lovers’ Eyes”
- “Hopeless Wanderer”
- “Broken Crown”
- “Below My Feet”
- “Not With Haste”