Album | Mumford & Sons – Babel

It’s difficult to write a review aware that it will serve no purpose. After the phenomenal success of their debut album Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons now find themselves with a legion of devoted fans. Folk fans, pop fans. People who enjoy a good foot-stomp. People who list amongst their hobbies ‘singing loudly whilst swinging plastic cups of beer over my head’. It’s the adoring crowd that their album deserved, but it leaves a reviewer with a certain lack of purpose – the entire nation has already made up their minds about whether or not they will be buying Mumford & Sons’ new album.

Which is a shame, because Babel is not everything it should have been, and is certainly not what Sigh No More was. It is a challenge that many a band has faced in the question of how to follow up an incredible chart success. Should the band attempt to repeat that success, and pay no heed to their desires to develop as an act, or should they use their fame as a safety net to catch them as they experiment with new sounds, and try and reach the next peak in critical acclaim (and personal development)? Each way has its victims – Nickelback for the former, Radiohead for the latter. The key is to hit a healthy balance between the two, as Elbow demonstrated with their follow-up to the massive success of The Seldom Seen Kid. Their next album included a few songs of the same grandeur as breakout hit ‘One Day Like This’, but also pushed the listener with some more obtuse (but nevertheless beautiful) songs that better represented their interests as a band.

When faced with the same challenge – sticking to the format that brought them album sales, fans, Hollywood actress wives or growing and developing their sound – Mumford & Sons also opted to mix the two. Unfortunately, they did so by picking out the most immediately popular aspects and choosing to develop only those. Babel lacks much of the quiet, thoughtful moments that broke up its predecessor, and fills them with MORE FOLK! MORE BANJO! MORE BIG, STOMPING MUSIC!

Take the title track of Babel, which starts aggressively big and then, eight seconds later, realises that its dial goes all the way up to eleven, and adjusts accordingly. Over the next three tracks the band’s banjo player gets so much work it’s hard not to worry about his fingers whittling themselves to stubs. It might not be possible to accurately explain just how much banjo there is in ‘I Will Wait’. Suffice to say, it represents at least forty percent of all banjo notes played in Britain so far in 2012.

The song is perhaps the best example of Babel‘s failings – drawn out from an untitled first album b-side, the reworking injects a shouty festival-friendly chorus and about an assault of folk noise at the cost of the original song’s subtlety and beauty.

It’d be unfair to suggest that Babel is necessarily bad – it’s sculpted with the sole intent of being enjoyable. On songs like ‘Lover of the Light’ you’d be hard-pressed to keep either of your feet
entirely still. If it weren’t so focused on crowd-pleasing, Babel would be a fairly subversive pop record – the first guaranteed number-one album in years to be built on Christian sentiment. “I was
told by Jesus all was well/So all must be well” sings Marcus Mumford on ‘Below My Feet’. It’s at these moments the album feels a little less calculated and a little more meaningful. Elsewhere, closing track ‘Not With Haste’ provides a real highlight; here the sincerity is, for once, not under-served by over-eager instrumentation.

But ultimately the album grossly underestimates its fans’ willingness to listen to anything beyond a wall of sound in which every brick is a banjo. If the band want a quick and easy success, they’ve done well in focusing only on those elements of their music that were loved by all first time round. In this sense, calling the album Babel was the wisest decision made. Because here they are, trying to speak a universal language when, in a world of ever diversifying musical tastes, such a thing cannot exist.

Words: Stephen Thomas

4 comments for “Album | Mumford & Sons – Babel

  1. Johnmarkatkin
    27 September 2012 at 5:17 pm

    I’ve succumbed and bought it today (not listened yet) despite my instinctive suspicion of M+S. There’s a (possibly unintentionally) illuminating point in Stephen’s review – the mentions of Nickelback, Radiohead and Elbow. I suspect this album is more likely to end up alongside the likes of those artists in more collections than it will nestle beside other modern folk. In fact it’s an interesting exercise to go on Amazon and look at the ‘frequently bought together…’ selections (Green Day, The Killers), or ‘People who bought this also bought…’ Not much folk in there. There’s the rub,: a lot of buyers will think of this album as pop rather than folk, because they don’t really spend time thinking about or exploring genres – they just buy stuff they like after hearing it on mainstream radio. Today it might be Mumford + Sons, tomorrow it might be Beyonce. And that’s the heart of the dilemma us folkies feel about M+S – we see them appropriating the music, the instruments and the ‘look’ we love, but we don’t really see them giving much back to the scene.

    • Stephen W Thomas
      Stephen Thomas
      1 October 2012 at 2:50 pm

      I’d say that through Communion, at least one member of the band does support a lot of young folk acts – but I’d also tend to agree with you and suggest, even, that many Communion related acts tend to be that sort of a pop brand of folk that Mumford represents.

  2. NathanVibration
    27 September 2012 at 6:26 pm

    The difference between Mumford and Sons and folk music is: 1. Folk music has survived largely due to the craft and import of its lyrics. Mumford are lyrically vacuous in a way that lacks even the surreal subtlety of, say, Michael Stipe or Vic Chesnutt. 2. It’s hard to see them as fitting in any sort of developed tradition except that of catchy indie music that one can sing along to in stadiums. (Coldplay have perfected that fell art of late…) 3. Folk music has usually dealt with either popular topical themes or archytypal stories, or both. Mumford’s importing of “folk” instrumentation does absolutley nothing to make them a folk band, any more than Norah Jones or Jamie Collum are jazz musicians. Nonetheless Mumford are a great band to jump up and down to when the kick kicks in, and when the jumping up and down stops and the harmony starts, like their Stateside equivalents Fleet Foxes they may sometimes sound Almost Meaningful – enough to make may of those singing along in vast venues feel part of something profound and spiritual… lucky them.

  3. Observe
    30 September 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Stephen, you run dangerously on a few assumptions. You speak of the similarity of format/approch between the two albums and the intent behind this. But precisely whose intent, do you believe, is driving their direction? The danger of a half-baked second album, stacked from start to finish with the same, was always likely. Though whether Mumford had any say in this is questionable. ‘Appeasement is of paramount importance’, says the master to his men. Island had them over a barrel from the word go. The music market is so unpredictable now. Major labels are completely dictated by the consumer. Outside their comfort zone, the very narrow spectrum of commercial, shelf-shifting garbage-pop, the big boys are clueless. Seriously, who ever believed a bunch of mid-twenties hill-billies could shift several hundreds and thousands of albums in the age of Gaga, Nero, Adele, blah blah blah blah blah??? If it sells, then sell it again. 

    Also, do you think Mumford can actually do anything else? 

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