Whatever anyone’s opinion, cynic or not, Mumford & Sons will always create a very specific divide; you like it or you hate it.
There does not appear to be any middle ground.
This distinct split clearly stems from the Mumford & Sons sound which, when considered objectively, is unique in today’s commercial market. How many other bands, for instance, have had huge success both in the UK and the US with a sound like Mumford & Sons?
They are something of a musical anomaly and succeeding under these circumstances does not deserve criticism.
In this context ‘Babel‘ is, in fact, an interesting album. There are no real contemporary comparisons other than to its predecessor, 2009’s ‘Sigh No More’. Unfortunately comparisons to their début are also ‘Babel’s Achilles’ heel as it follows that now familiar path.
Second albums are always considered ‘the difficult one’, especially if the first is applauded by the masses. ‘Sigh No More’ was indeed a fresh sound in 2009 and a breath of fresh air in its unique style and approach. If something works first time around then repeating the formula is always a temptation, and this may or may not have been the intention with ‘Babel’.
As Brian Wilson was developing the Beach Boys sound into the genius cut and paste production of ‘Smile‘, Mike Love admonished him with the famous line, “Don’t fuck with the formula”. Love turned out to be right in the short term, wrong in the long term. Retrospect is a funny thing. In the case of ‘Babel’ not fucking with the formula might be considered a good thing for the fans, particularly after a three year wait for new material.
The difficulty, though, lies in its lack of musical variety and a sense of lyrical sermonising. The title track opens the album with tenacity and even an air of hostility. Every line, furiously rasped by Marcus Mumford, is answered by chiming banjo and the rhythm of an acoustic folk 6/8 stomp. But its emotive command feels forced – as does much of the album.
Live favourite ‘Whispers In The Dark’, for instance, is packed with biblical references which sound disingenuous and the performance exaggerated. Set to a rollicking hoedown beat it is easy to imagine how this will be a stadium anthem for fans, but on record it lacks any dynamism or bite.
‘I Will Wait’ fairs no better. Its country-tinged melody and tight harmonies start to wear by the first chorus, pulled down by the weight of the same arrangement as the opening tracks. Even when the tempo is slowed as in ‘Holland Road’ and ‘Ghosts That We Knew’ there is limited range in the production or tone and therefore not much compensation. Sadly the tempo is the only real variance throughout the record, which is a surprise when you consider it has been produced by Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay).
Regardless of the album’s flaws, as performers Mumford & Sons are a very talented group. They have a knack for strong melody, and are excellent musicians individually and a tight unit as a whole, with a great deal of flair, ambition and drive.
If their goal is to attract a bigger audience with ‘Babel’ then it will certainly be met and most likely exceeded, especially with their growing success in the US, but overall it feels like an album solely for their loyal fan base. Songs that were requested by the audience, rehearsed in front of the audience, moulded live in front of the audience and then recorded specifically for that audience.
‘Babel’ is an album that will undoubtedly provide the faithful with their fix, but for everyone else it may prove to be annoying tedium from a band that wishes it were The Pogues but sounds more like Coldplay with a banjo. But as for those cynics, the truth is it does not matter what they think; the group have a solid and ever expanding fan base built on their 2009 foundation stone.
Detractors may have already written off Mumford & Sons but you never know, perhaps in the future they will prove to have another trick up their waistcoat sleeves.
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