By the time 2012 turned around, Mumford & Sons had sold over five million copies of Sigh No More, their Brit Award-winning debut. Alongside fellow British export Adele, they’d successfully conquered international airwaves, making songs like “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” nearly ubiquitous. Their blend of rootsy Britpop offered an irresistible combination of unbridled passion and earnest poeticism, complete with Marcus Mumford’s howling vocals and and Winston Marshall’s uptempo banjo. But above all else, the London-based fourpiece emanates the sort of energy most bands reserve for live performances. After all, they’re not much a studio band. Since their formation in 2007, Mumford & Sons have toured almost nonstop, playing both beside Laura Marling and at Glastonbury before releasing their first EP. So it’s no surprise that many of the songs on Babel have been in the setlist rotation for a year and a half. In a way, Mumford & Sons have crowdsourced their composition, molding tunes into studio-ready tracks based on live audience reaction.
This method of songwriting explains a lot about Babel. The band’s blustery sophomore release embraces elements of Sigh No More that worked in concert and pushes them to their limits, often glossing over the subtleties of their craft. The rollicking mandolin and banjo, the rhapsodic proclamations and grandiose imagery, the musical breaks and moments of profound confession — all of these aspects expand and balloon on Babel. It’s not that Mumford & Sons have abandoned their roots; Babel stays very much within their initial formula. Rather, they have inflated and reconfigured the components of their success in a self-important and thoroughly underwhelming sophomore slump.
OVERWROUGHT AND UNDERTHOUGHT
On the title track, Mumford & Sons attempt to play mountainous mandolin thrashing off valleys of Mumford’s tender navel-gazing. It aims to rouse, like yet another call to arms for the lonely-hearted. The eight-stringed assault is overwrought and underthought, while the lyrics are simultaneously saccharine and self-aggrandizing (“you will ask where we stand in the winds that will howl / as all we see will slip into the cloud”). Later, songs like “Ghosts That We Knew” and “Hopeless Wanderer” implement a bit of Avett-style harmonizing, as the band croons over quiet banjo plucking and bittersweet piano. These tracks aren’t bad, but they are boring, and the swollen lyrics are distinctly obnoxious (“cause you know my call / we’ll share my all / now children come / and they will hear me roar”).
“I Will Wait” and “Holland Road” are destined for radio play, though neither carries the same weight as the band’s first two hit singles. The former is a fairly straightforward promise of commitment, while the latter is a howling tale of lost love. Also worth a mention is “Lover of the Light,” another vigorous tune that attempts to mend a broken heart (“but love the one you hold / and I’ll be your goal / to have and to hold / a love of the light”). It also proffers a line that sums up this album conceptually: “Watch me crumble over and over.” Babel consistently conveys pain of heartbreak, though Mumford’s repeated torment is often overshadowed by his verbose rhetoric.
Finally, Babel wraps up with several slow campfire songs, along with a folksy Simon & Garfunkel cover. “Not With Haste” and “For Those Below” tone down the torment for a pair of modest bluegrass songs, while their twanging cover of “The Boxer” is a bit off. The choral refrains and countrified guitar don’t quite match a song about NYC disillusionment. Babel tapers out inoffensively, reserving most of the bombast — and the risk — for the first half of the record.
Triumphant yet unrefined, Babel feels presumptuous and restricted, perhaps as a result of Mumford & Sons’ warp-speed rise to fame. The high expectations and constant touring seem to have taken a toll on the band, severely limiting their capacity for creativity. On Babel, Mumford & Sons dismantle the pieces of Sigh No More, reassembling them into a bizarre, grating mishmash. All too frequently, Babel sounds like a warped mimicry of the band’s debut. Notably, the group has frequently claimed that Babel shakes up the formula they initially implemented. “We think this record will attract a different audience, which is really exciting,” multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett told NME this week. “And broaden people’s view of us.” While Babel does lean more toward the folk side of Mumford & Sons’ influences, it’s hardly a complete turnaround. No, Babel relies on the same sentimental clamor that gave the band their start. Hefty and roaring, Mumford & Sons’ sophomore release is self-absorbed and profoundly annoying. [D]