Album Review: Mumford & Sons ‘Babel’

The opening minute of “Babel” immediately sounds like any song from Sigh No More, revealing both the strength of the band’s motif and perhaps their total lack of flexibility or ability to grow. This opening track addresses the question posed to all bands with their sophomore releases, and the answer appears clear: Mumford & Sons are going to do everything in their power to recreate their first album, and that’s about it.

The songs on this record are even more poetic and often hammy than in the past, which will appeal to a lot of people. Yet this might also cement them into position as an art school theater production with very few acts, rather than the organic and raw band their sound and their fans yearn for them to ultimately be.

The strengths of the band are primarily two: energized and driving hoedowns on the ol’ banjo, and Marcus Mumford’s voice, which is just about lethal. When he sings with urgency, I absolutely believe him, every time, even if the band seems to treat their subject matter as product and emotion as a currency. The story is ostensibly the same on every track, and after a while it starts to feel less genuine and more like an over-the-top display of hollow drama for mass consumption.

There are only a few songs with different sounds. “I Will Wait” is a slightly subdued track with its own vibe, but the presence of the familiar banjo keeps it from escaping the gravitational well of their carefully constructed safe zone. These slow songs should be highlights, or at least deviations, but without the power of their thumping and screaming base of strength Mumford & Sons are not able to captivate at all. While it can be slightly interesting to hear a different set of sounds on a record like this, in this case it ends up feeling disappointingly dull. Most will just want to hear “Little Lion Man” again. The middle of Babel is entirely skippable.

Things pick back up again in the second half of “Hopeless Wanderer,” but “Broken Crown” doesn’t seem to get the memo, repeating the same structure of starting soft and building into an aggressively self-loathing climax. “Below My Feet” makes this transition for the third straight time, and the album is at its last song, feeling like it is desperately swinging and trying to land a knockout punch before time runs out. The actual finale, “Not with Haste,” just kind of whimpers and the band fades away.

Mumford & Sons is a band with a very strong style that appeals to a huge swath of people, but I can’t help but think even fans will be tired of this record by the end of their first listen. It’s the sort of album best experienced one song at a time anyway, so just wait for the singles, and when the radio stations sub one track from Babel out for the next I honestly doubt that many will notice.

Release Date: September 25, 2012
Image Courtesy of Glass Note

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