Mumford & Sons: Babel

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.

Mumford & Sons


Label: Island
US Release Date: 2012-09-25
UK Release Date: 2012-09-24

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.