Mumford & Sons
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There are some guitar sounds so indelibly stuck into our collective pop-consciousness that even those who can’t tell a minor from a major chord can identify the band or player from just a few riffs –a dreamy John Lennon lick, the cosmic climb of Joe Perry, Slash’s slash, Nirvana’s fuzzy-barre rips, the post-punk fury of Sonic Youth. Now, the chugging, kinetic strum of Mumford & Sons is slowly creeping onto this revered list – not born out of extreme skill or virtuosity but by sheer branding, note for note. And it’s how the band’s second album, Babel, opens on the title track: with that same very strum, born somewhere between English mountain folk and an old time Appalachia. You can nearly hear the sweat flying off Marcus Mumford, his Martin instrument hiked high on his chest, every time he and banjo player Winston Marshall attack their strings.
So it’s no coincidence, it seems, that the band’s highly anticipated sophomore record begins exactly where we might expect, and the rest of LP that follows proves that this isn’t an attempt to smash any expectations with a sudden progression of their style. For those devotees looking for the Mumfords to evolve drastically, well, you’re out of luck. But who would that audience be, anyway? The band is no doubt polarizing: old time and bluegrass faithfuls wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of Sigh No More, and their most ardent followers are more likely to have an iPod stocked with Coldplay and John Mayer than Bill Monroe or Doc Watson. Even pop addicts can’t deny the catchy craft of “Little Lion Man” or “The Cave.” No one is looking for their Kid A. Thus Babel’s not a new sentence in the book of Mumford & Sons – it’s what happens after an ellipses. And in many ways, that suits them just fine. It will most definitely suit their fans.
Marcus Mumford has always been a bit of a melancholy fellow, and even a marriage to pixie-haired starlet Carey Mulligan, sold-out shows and Grammy nominations haven’t shaken the teary introspection from this set of songs. Obviously, Babel deals in a lot of religious imagery and lyrics – with all the success and opportunities to indulge, it seems the boys have taken a moment to ask a few questions of their maker. “This cup of yours tastes holy/but a brush with the devil can clear your mind,” Mumford sings on the second track “Whispers in the Dark.” It’s an anthem call with a firm statement: “I’m a cad but I’m not a I’m not a fraud / I set out to serve the lord.” Maybe the trials and tribulations of being simultaneously loved and harangued have worn on the Mumford’s, but at least they can prove to themselves, their audience or even their lord that this stuff comes from the heart.
The album’s single, “I Will Wait,” is an easy crowd-pleaser moment with an arena-ready hushed chorus, set to those furious strings. The lyric and melody could easily be a Fray song if you removed the plucking banjo –and that’s the amazing thing about Mumford & Sons. Purists aside, there’s no one else that can get an audience from ages eight to eighty screaming along to a bunch of acoustic instruments or urge a kid to choose guitar lessons over computer games. Every time they perform – live or on Babel – they do it with sheer fervor, as if it’s both their first and last time.
While the band is mostly known for their “Americana” sound, they also pull references from their side of the pond: from both classic British countryside folk and Celtic punk bands like The Pogues. Those influences run a little more clear on Babel – “Ghosts That We Knew” and “Reminder” are both soft, melancholy stunners born out of grassy hills and cockney-tinged tales told in wood-paneled bars. And “Broken Crown” is the boys at their angriest yet: “I’ll never be your chosen one,” Mumford sings lightly before launching into an all-out war over minstrel plucks. It’s a force of a song, and not your firmest pick nor hard-earned callous could weather that storm.
Babel has some other unexpected moments, too, like on “Hopeless Wanderer,” which begins with keys instead of strum, and “Lover of the Light” is a sunnier moment, perhaps a nod to the singer’s recent vows (“to have and to hold,” Mumford howls on the track). And the album’s closer, “Not Without Haste,” is a beautiful lullaby meant more for singing a restless man to sleep than a still-innocent child.
There’s also a continuation of the Mumford’s love of literary references, with the boys even copping recently to ripping a line from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – this is the band, after all, that was able to loop Macbeth’s fateful cry of “stars, hide your fires” into their rollicking song “Roll Away Your Stone.” So while the album title, Babel, is most likely a biblical reference, it’s hard not to think of Jorge Louis Borges’ short story, The Library of Babel. In it Borges imagines a universe composed of an endless library that contains every book in every possible permutation, and, therefore, nothing at all. This excess causes great despair for people of the library as they try to search for meaning in all of it. They fret. They come up empty.
Babel may not hold all the answers, and it may not be some exotic transformation of their original formula — it’s a safe bet to say that nothing from the Mumford & Sons may ever be. In The Library of Babel, the final realization that everything repeats itself is the universe’s saving grace. And in Babel, you could say the same. Though there may not be endless possibilities, there’s comfort – elegance, even – in that familiar, now nearly iconic rip of those strings, strummed in the way only those boys from West London can strum. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly Mumford & Sons.