Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mumford & Sons - Babel

Mumford & Sons - Babel
Island/Glassnote, 2012
3.5 stars

After this year’s American Idol coronation song (“Home,” by the unfortunately named Phillip Phillips) pretty much rewrote Mumford & Sons’ previous hits in a more uplifting fashion, it was clear they were becoming a substantial force in the music world. And why not? Their debut, 2009’s Sigh No More spawned a bunch of hits and sold five million copies. It was also pretty easy to like, a superfluous but well-executed collection of folk-pop tunes that made listeners feel rugged and indie without asking them to venture too far beyond the boundaries of conventional radio rock or singer/songwriter fare. The songs had a pleasant, winterish feel to them that fell somewhere between The Fray and Fleet Foxes, and the bombastic tendencies of the production (provided by Markus Dravs, a guy with a proven reputation of making “big” records like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs or Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto) gave the songs an arena-bound energy.

So why, then, did so many people absolutely abhor this band? To be fair, they got a lot of hyperbolic love too, transforming somewhere along the line into the next “frat boy” sensation (for the same people who worship Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, and O.A.R.). I personally could never figure out how the music at hand managed to inspire such passionate feelings in either direction. As far as I was concerned, you could do a lot worse than Mumford & Sons, but you could also do a lot better. They were innocuous, a lesser version of the folk bands they imitated, but they weren’t the villainous, “folk-rock-answer-to-Nickelback” figures that some of their fiercest detractors accused them of being.

All of this holds true for Babel, their highly anticipated sophomore album, which is, for better or worse, pretty much the exact same record as Sigh No More. The words and literary references have been changed around, but on the whole, Babel follows the same form as its predecessor, and numerous songs are almost blatantly written in the same tradition as past ones. The most obvious example is “Broken Crown,” essentially a sped up version of Sigh’s “I Gave You All,” but listeners will hear familiar echoes regularly throughout these 12 tracks. Most of the time though, it follows the mantra of any blockbuster Hollywood sequel: do everything you did the first time, just do it bigger. That motto is immediately prevalent in the album’s introduction, which positions three rousing numbers in a row. “Babel” opens the album in a similar vein to the title track from Sigh No More, only rather than building the song from Appalachian vocal harmonies, the band just races out of the gate. We get the furiously strummed acoustic guitar, the banjo licks, and the strong percussion backdrop to fill things out before Marcus Mumford lends his signature vocals to the mix. He strains on the high notes and whispers at the quieter sections, in the same way we’ve heard him do before. We’ll hear it again, too.

Make no mistake, Babel is the not an evolution. We don’t get any of the experimentation or bloated self-importance that so often characterizes post-breakthrough albums, and while that frees the guys from the danger of a sophomore slump (how can it be a “slump” when it’s the same formula?), it also means that Babelprobably isn’t going to win many new fans. That’s okay though: it was evident from the day they released “I Will Wait” as a single that they were of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp. The fact that the song is predictable and derivative of their old style doesn’t really matter. It rolls along with a rollicking country lilt and boasts a truly gorgeous bridge section, building in a manner that makes these guys sound like what U2 would have been if they had started out as a folk act rather than a punk band with arena rock ambitions. The group, consisting of Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, and Ted Dwane (all of them multi-instrumentalists) dominates these arrangements and sounds as crisp and clean as any set of musicians in the mainstream today. Even if the songs they’re playing aren’t terribly complex, it’s hard not to at least passingly enjoy what they do here.

Album highlight “Ghosts That We Knew” is a gorgeous torch song that recalls Sigh No More’s closing track, “After the Storm,” and it’s hard to see why it doesn’t carry the album out here. “But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view/And we'll live a long life,” sings Mumford in the refrain, a wistful tone accenting his cryptically nostalgic lyrical craft. It’s the kind of song you would expect to hear around campfires on late autumn nights, the sort of gorgeous elegy your uncle pulls out, in a moment of clarity, at the end of a rambunctious night with the family. Perhaps that’s what a lot of people hate about this band: they feel conventional, like your friend’s brother’s folk band that jammed a few nights a week during college and played bars every once in awhile. But that’s also their greatest strength: they sound like they could be your friends, your family. Their songs ring with truth and honesty and simplicity, with lyrics that sometimes don’t make a lick of sense, but which are fun to sing along to anyway. In that sense, the grand production feels a bit out of place, like Dravs’ spotless work doesn’t really fit the character of the band. But they still find the intimacy in songs like “Lovers’ Eyes,” even with a horn section that barrels in four minutes through, or the bare-bones acoustic work of “Reminder,” which plays like an interlude at first, but distinguishes itself on repeat listens. At moments like these, Babel feels like home.

Babel is not a great album, but it doesn’t really need to be. The songs are too similar, and the album loses its way a bit as it goes (though the fantastic “Below My Feet” adds some much needed climactic heft in the penultimate position). But within these songs, there is a band with a palpable love for what they are doing, and even if they missed the boat on widespread musical respect three years ago, I can still appreciate them for that. Frankly, I’m happy there’s someone making this kind of music in the mainstream, and even happier that there seems to be a market for it. Maybe someday, folk music will worm its way back into the public consciousness, but until then, Mumford & Sons are sort of functioning as the champions of an age gone by. That’s not a bad role to play though, and based on my recent experiences with top 40 radio and the deplorable noise that my roommates put on at parties, you really can do a hell of a lot worse.

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