Album Review: Mumford and Sons – Babel

By on Friday, 21st September 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

In an interview with Steve Lamacq on BBC 6music Wednesday night, Mumford and Sons were entirely humble about their worldwide popularity. Keyboardist Ben Lovett even asked out loud, “why us?” They still seem surprised by their success, admitting that many others have tried to do the same thing as them, yet they were the ones that rose to the top.

As we have all seen with the explosion of the folk rock genre immediately following the acclaim of the band’s debut album ‘Sigh No More’ in October 2009, many bands have challenged Mumford and Sons’ solid grip on the Kings of Folk sceptre, including bands we’ve featured here on TGTF Dry the River, Dog is Dead, Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men and Australia’s Husky. Only time will tell if any of these bands will surpass the popularity of the original, but what is of equal importance is if Mumford’s latest release is up to snuff.

We would be remiss not to discuss the album’s title. Talking to Rolling Stone, bassist Ted Dwane says of the heavy name, “I think it’s a great story, the story of Babel. I think anyone can direct it as an analogy for a lot of different situations…I think everyone can [relate to the story of Babel], yes. It’s such a human thing. As humans, we’re such a discontented species. We’re always trying to further ourselves, and you get all the way to the moon and then it’s just discontent. You want to go to Mars. You know, there’s so many stories in that story. There’s definitely, like, analogies for our strange behavior as a species that I consider interesting.” As I’m not a religious person at all, I had to go looking for what this Biblical story of the Tower of Babel was all about.

From what I gathered in my brief research, the story is designed to be an example of a deity’s decision to throw a group of people a curve ball, mostly to force them to stop their attempt to build a structure that would allow them to reach heaven, so they would have to regroup and reassess to face the new challenges put before them. As for the “strange behavior” Dwane mentions in the Rolling Stone interview, one such strange behaviour would be the overzealous fans of Mumford and Sons, those that have made the band into gods. It’s something that us writers here at TGTF have discussed at times, and judging from Lovett’s rhetorical question on Lammo’s programme Wednesday night, the band themselves are wondering, all the while amused, about this as well. ‘Below My Feet’, the second to last track of ‘Babel’, distills this humility in song, but in a more serious fashion. Lyrics “Let me learn where I have been / keep my eyes to serve and my hands to learn” can be the words of the departed or someone who is still here on earth, seeking to take what good that’s been given to him and make good with it. While you never would have expected Mumford and Sons to succumb to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, I think this song is a great pledge by the band to remain grounded. Below is video taken from Glasto of the band performing this very song.

My first observation upon listening to the whole album all the way through for the first time: there’s an awful lot of kneeling going on in here. And as might be expected from Dwane’s chat with Rolling Stone, many of the songs on ‘Babel’ are tinged with religious overtones. The title track attacks the story head on, with Marcus Mumford declaring, “you’ll build your walls, and I will play my bloody part / to tear, to tear… / but I’m gonna tear…tear them down!” as Winston Marshall’s banjo bangs gaily along. The words “I’m not a fraud / I’ve set out to serve the lord” feel a bit heavy-handed in ‘Whispers in the Dark’. ‘Broken Crown’ stands up with defiance, as if Jesus had a singing voice and bore down on Satan, rejecting the temptation of Christ. Not sure how God feels about the words “crawl on my belly til the sun goes down / I’ll never wear your broken crown / I’ll take the ropes and fuck it all the way / in this twilight, how dare you speak of grace” though….

‘I Will Wait’, the first single released from the album, was a safe choice: it’s got the feel good chord progressions melody and slap happy vibe of all of Mumford and Sons’ most popular songs from ‘Sigh No More’ (‘Roll Away Your Stone’, ‘Little Lion Man’). That said, it can become easily tiresome with its repetitiveness and lack of originality. While sounding nice, ‘Not with Haste’ just doesn’t push the right buttons for me, feeling like filler. ‘Hopeless Wanderers’ and ‘Lover of the Light’, the latter of which the band performed for the Austin City Limits tv programme, see the band trying too hard to write another ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ building to a hoedown number.

The songs that succeed better on ‘Babel’ are those that show the band wearing their hearts on their sleeve, ‘Lovers’ Eyes’ and ‘Reminder’. This would have served as a delicious one song after another in the middle of the album but unfortunately on ‘Lovers’ Eyes’, there is an unnecessary boom of sound when the chorus comes in, as if the band realised all of a sudden, “oh shoot, there isn’t loud enough”. ‘Ghosts That We Knew’ is like a ‘Winter Winds’ pt. 2, except this time the message isn’t filled with sorrow or regretful, but a positive one of moving forward from the darkest days: “but I will hold on as long as you like / just promise me that we’ll be all right”.

I can – and do – appreciate Mumford and Sons tackling some difficult subjects on ‘Babel’, and for sure, this is a nice-sounding set of songs that will get played over and over, night after night on the band’s future sold out tours. But with a band that’s gone on to sell millions of records, we expect more. It’s too heavy-handed if you’re in the mood for a ‘fun’ album, but chances are if you’ve picked up a Mumford album in the past, what you’re looking for are good harmonies and a banjo. You just won’t find anything amazing on here.

6/10

‘Babel’, Mumford and Sons’ second album, will be out on Monday (the 24th of September) on Gentlemen of the Road / Island Records.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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