Mumford & Sons’ debut album, Sigh No More, sold millions of copies based on the strength of its two singles, “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave”. All credit to the band and Glassnote Records, because it would have been difficult to find two better songs from Sigh No More to spring on an unsuspecting public. “Little Lion Man”, with its urgent, minor key guitar and banjo interplay and its bracing chorus (“I really fucked it up this time”), managed to sound organic and folky while still rocking surprisingly hard for an acoustic group. “The Cave” was a perfect complement. Despite also being in a minor key, the song was bright-sounding and built to a huge horn-infused climax while never losing its forward momentum.
It was fortunate that the band had such a strong pair of singles, because the rest of Sigh No More was disappointingly monochromatic. Mumford & Sons seemed to have two settings—quiet and still or loud and bombastic. And most of the time, the songs started quiet and still and then quickly burst into loud and bombastic. Did you like the chugging minor key acoustic guitar of “Little Lion Man”? Good, because you heard it a bunch more times if you bought the album! Did you like how the band added horns to bolster its sound on “The Cave”? Excellent. You got to hear them do that again and again as well! Sure, the band was doing something very different from its brethren in the Top 40 pop universe, but it was doing it differently in the exact same way on nearly every song.
So the challenge for Mumford & Sons with their all-important follow-up album, Babel, was to replicate their previous success while expanding their sound and improving their songwriting. Clearly, resting on their laurels was an option. It’s easy to take selling two million albums in the United States and another million in the UK as a mandate to keep doing exactly the same thing. But one would hope the young band would take their success and use it as a chance to improve and grow as a band. Fortunately for their fans and for fans of the folk and Americana genres everywhere, Mumford & Sons have taken the latter path. At times, they’re still annoyingly bombastic for an ostensible folk band, but Babel shows a lot of development stylistically.
First single “I Will Wait” is a small illustration of that development. It’s a song largely driven by the nonstop kick drum of lead singer Marcus Mumford, Mumford’s guitar strumming, and Winston Marshall’s active banjo line. But this time around, the band opts to use a major key for its sentimental message of love. It gives the band’s excellent harmonies additional warmth, and the horn section is used in small doses but to good effect. It’s a good single because it’s instantly recognizable as Mumford & Sons without specifically repeating their earlier tracks.
What Babel does well is tone down the band’s tendency to shove every element they like into every single song. So the album opens with the title track, which features Mumford singing as loud as possible while the band chugs away in a minor key. It’s exactly what you’d expect, but instead of starting quiet and going loud, the band stops dead a couple times mid-song and lets Mumford get quiet. It’s not a big departure, but for Mumford & Sons, this counts as progress. Second song “Whispers in the Dark” is another uptempo stomper with Mumford obsessively thumping his kick drum on every beat. But he backs off on the usually-overpowering guitar strumming here and lets Marshall’s banjo picking dominate the music.
It isn’t until around the middle of the album that the band really starts to stretch out. “Ghosts That We Knew” is a bonafide ballad, complete with gorgeous piano chords and beautiful, close harmonies that add to the warmth. As the song goes, it gradually adds in acoustic guitar and nice, subtle electric slide guitar, but resists the urge to go big. Not only is the refrain the quietest part of the song, but the band also has the good sense to let the track gradually fade out. In a bit of perfect sequencing, this song is followed by “Lover of the Light”, a big, inspiring widescreen track. It effectively weaves in a lot of elements the band struggled with on their first album. It’s midtempo, it’s major key, it uses the band’s part-time horn section effectively but not intrusively, and it has something resembling an actual banjo riff, not just quick-fingered picking. Mumford’s typical romantic platitudes are given heft by the big, bright music, so “Love the one you hold / And I’ll be your goal / To have and to hold / A lover of the light” actually sounds inspiring instead of cheesy.
The band’s harmonizing takes center stage on “Lover’s Eyes”, a song that begins with sparse instrumentation and has the feel of an Irish spiritual crossed with the vocals of Crosby, Stills and Nash. “Hopeless Wanderer” returns to the band’s old trick of starting slow and instantly speeding up to double time about 90 seconds into the song. But this time around, Mumford & Sons throw in an extra twist, returning to the original tempo while retaining the louder volume. When the song eventually returns to full speed, it’s a shift that works simply because the band has refrained from using that technique on the rest of the album.
Not everything on Babel is so successful. “Broken Crown” sounds like an outtake from Sigh No More, as the band overplays the darkness of the song and does it at the loudest possible volume. Apocalyptic minor piano chords pound in the background along with shimmering, creepy droning noises. Up front, Mumford again thumps away nonstop on his kick drum while spitting out the lyrics, even throwing in a gratuitous “fuck” for good measure: “So crawl on my belly ‘til the sun goes down / I’ll never wear your broken crown / I took the road / And I fucked it all away!” Earlier in the album, the fourth track “Holland Road” is the fourth uptempo song in a row from the start of the record. While it’s catchy enough, it suffers from being too similar in style and speed as the first three tracks and doesn’t make much of an impact.
Mumford & Sons seem to have figured out that there is more than one way to put together a song. This tweaking of their songwriting technique gives this album a decent flow, and makes it a much smoother listen than Sigh No More. While there are some real gems here, occasionally the songs tend to fade into generic background folk music. This happens near the album’s end in particular. The band still takes the “all hands on deck” approach too often, pulling out the horn section and background electric guitars to make a huge clamor. Also, if Mumford & Sons go on to have a long-term career, one hopes they will eventually realize that guitar and piano can also be used as melody instruments and not just for rhythm and chords, respectively. That would go a long way toward giving their sound more variety. Still, the band has made small but significant strides since their first album. Babel isn’t a great album, but it is a good one.
// Notes from the Road
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