Mumford & Sons: Babel
It’s hard to believe that Mumford & Sons only released their debut album, Sigh No More, a mere three years ago in 2009. Since that time they have solidified their place at the center of the indie-folk revival alongside the Avett Brothers and Bon Iver. After their raucous performance with Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammy Awards, which saw folk’s elder statesman pass the torch to a new generation of artists, Mumford & Sons’ fame skyrocketed, and their album achieved the elusive combination of critical and commercial success. Their follow-up effort, Babel, was recently released and immediately soared to the top of the charts selling over 600,000 units in its first week alone. While Babel may not offer the plethora of memorable, upbeat pop ballads that made Sigh No More so appealing, the album is more complex and layered, exhibiting a significant growth in the band’s lyrical composition and musical arrangements. With a sound that’s less thrashing and more subtle than what we’ve come to expect, Babel is just enough of a departure to seem fresh and unexpected while still allowing Marcus Mumford’s signature growl and bluegrass-inspired melodies to remain the focal point.
With their unabashedly catchy lyrics and multifaceted sound intact, Babel is from start to finish an extremely successful effort. The first single off the album, “I Will Wait,” while familiar and instantly likable, exhibits the least amount of innovation; the song panders to the need for a radio-friendly crossover hit, though the harmony is exquisite and more polished than what we’ve heard from them previously. “Babel,” the opening song, is that perfect blend of ballad and boisterous anthem that has become Mumford & Sons’ trademark – it’s almost impossible to avoid tapping your feet to the beat when the song gets going. There is really no band out there right now that can transition so seamlessly through such disparate tempos in the same song. Although they are most celebrated for their electrifying eruptions of sound that are positively intoxicating, it’s the quieter, more introspective moments on Babel – “Lover of the Light,” “Broken Crown” – that are the album’s most compelling. The arrangements on these tracks are beautiful and Mumford’s vocals are replete with agony and a raw quality that belies what are undoubtedly heavily produced numbers. Although we’re hardly country fans, songs like “Lover of the Light” that reveal a trace of that deep South bluegrass sound are among the best on the album.
While Mumford’s mainstream acceptance and radio friendly hits may repel die hard indie fans, it remains difficult to dispute the sheer exuberance and intricate arrangements of their tunes. They have definitely taken some unexpected risks on Babel. Their collaboration with Jerry Douglas on the Simon & Garfunkel tune “The Boxer” is surprising and definitely a bit of a gamble, yet we must admit that they did the song justice and brought a new simplicity to the venerable classic. As big Simon & Garfunkel fans we were ready to hate it upon hearing the opening licks but we were completely won over by the end. And that’s at the heart of what makes a Mumford album so potent – as much as you may think that this folk-pop hybrid may not be for you, the songs inevitably win you over. It’s extremely difficult to remain immune to their charms.