“At times it reaches glorious peaks, but for too long feels like a poor rehash of what’s come before. The work of a band penned in by their own sound…”
Mumford & Sons | Babel
It was 13th February 2011 when Marcus Mumford and his band of merry men must have realised that their brand of banjo-toting folk-pop had got bigger than anyone ever could have expected. For this was the day that, with waistcoats on, neck ties tied and trucker cap firmly clamped on top of brow, Mumford & Sons performed alongside their musical godfather, Bob Dylan, at the 53rd Grammy Awards. It highlighted two things: firstly, how much America had embraced these four gentleman as their rootin’, tootin’ own, and secondly that, against all the odds, this group were suddenly big game players, selling well over three million copies of debut album Sigh No More.
Like all big game players, they certainly have their detractors. While an unfortunate acronym match with a safe and rather middle class supermarket make them an easy target, there was and remains a collection of those unconvinced at these boys attempts at playing dress up. While the music will always be up for discussion – as is its nature – both the band’s rollocking road trip movie ‘The Big Easy Express’ and keyboardist Ben Lovett’s wonderfully organic Communion label – home to Michael Kiwanuka, The Staves, Matt Corby, Ben Howard and Daughter among others – in fact suggest a group of young men utterly enthralled by this rootsy way of life.
So, if Sigh No More was fine of tune and marked the first time in a while that the banjo was so regularly Radio 1 A-listed, Babel – which arrives three years after its predecessor – has the tricky job of being released into a marketplace that know exactly what Mumford et al are about. The relative surprise has gone, and like any second record, now it’s time to face the music.
Babel, in the main, pulls no punches. There is no seismic shift in emphasis. Vocals are bellowed. Harmonies and horns swell. Bass drums thwack. Banjos are plucked. In the cold light of day there isn’t a single song here that would have sounded out of place on ‘Sigh No More’. None of which are necessarily bad things – many classic albums have been made without the need for a complete overhaul in sound –but in order to succeed this evolution-not-revolution approach relies on a few things: sharper melodies, craftier arrangements, better instrumentation. Babel’s downfall comes in the fact that these characteristics aren’t present throughout; the musical equivalent of boarding a plane knowing you’ve taken this flight before, but only this time you’ll be doing it in economy rather than stretching your legs in first class.
‘Whispers In The Dark’ starts positively before succumbing to the well-trodden ‘chung-cha, cha-da chung cha’ strumming pattern, a singular,stomping bass drum thump and a weak melody line. ‘Reminder’ aims for the intimacy of ‘Timshel’ or ‘After The Storm’ however resorts to clichéd lyrics of being ‘lost with you’ while asking his love not to ‘fade away’. ‘Hopeless Wanderer’ grabs your attention briefly before settling back into the what-must-now-be-patented Mumford groove mentioned before. It’s a tried and tested trademark yes, but it’s still one that, when done right can be hugely effective, as seen on first single, the rollocking ‘I Will Wait’, one of the few moments when the group let you pull back the polyester curtain of economy and glimpse at the horizontal beds of those up front.
Throughout Babel there is a sense of a group already penned in by their own sound, a fact highlighted by the few moments in which the band add new colours to their palette. The acoustic post-punk sections of ‘Hopeless Wanderer’ are the aforementioned attention grabbers, while the straight, half-time finale of ‘Below My Feet’ sees a full drum kit enter the fray to devastatingly good effect.
It is the drum kit again that makes the difference on the high water mark ‘Lover of The Light’. With the group wrapping themselves round a groove they haven’t yet encountered, and a heightened contrast between light and dark, it is a truly sublime moment. Anthemic yet delicate, singalong yet serious, it is perhaps worth the price of admission alone and frustratingly hints at what Babel could have been. It also happens to be one of the few times across the album that Winston Marshall’s banjo playing really comes to the fore.
For the masses that devoured Sigh No More this is a record that may well suffice – it’s big of spirit if not execution. However, with the lack of a ‘Little Lion Man’ or ‘The Cave’ you also suspect that for many the lingering feeling come the end of Babel will be a sigh of disappointment. At times it reaches glorious peaks, but for too long feels like a poor rehash of what’s come before. Make sure you’re seat’s upright and your luggage is stowed in the overhead bins; you’re now flying Mumford Economy. We hope you enjoy the flight.