It’s not often that a band becomes internationally-renowned solely off the back of their debut album, but especially when considering their left-field take on folk music, Mumford & Sons aren’t exactly your most conventional band to start with.
After the phenomenal success of ‘Sigh No More’ (2009) with a string of nominations and awards that followed, the West London folk quartet are set to release ‘Babel’ into the world on September the 24th.
‘Babel’ rather arrogantly opens with its own self-titled track which is filled with all the trademark Mumford whimsy and magic that we first heard three years ago on ‘Sigh No More’; We gladly welcome back those aggressive, yet soothing vocals as they familiarly tear through the raucously rhythmic acoustic guitar and frantic banjo picking. ‘Whispers in the Dark’ overflows with religious undertone in its beautifully sung lyrics without being too overt about it or making you feel like you accidentally bought a Cliff Richard album.
When Mumford & Sons debuted their first single ‘I Will Wait‘, it was pretty obvious that ‘Babel’ would most definitely continue where their last album left off – something which was met with both joy and mild disgust by fans. Regardless, this track has everything on the ‘Sigh No More’ checklist: signature Mumford harmonies, frantic banjo, pulsating drums and a chorus which grows stronger with every refrain. However, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve heard this all before, especially since ‘I Will Wait’ starts with a suspiciously similar banjo part which features midway through the last track ‘Whispers in the Dark.’ Fortunately for us, it manages to quickly distinguish itself from the latter track before I could call Marcus Mumford to complain.
At points, I wish Mumford & Sons would give the whole ‘epic build-up formula’ a bit of a rest. This becomes especially apparent when listening to ‘Babel’ from start to finish as the first seven consecutive tracks all start off as tender, stripped back affairs and rather predictably end up erupting in a mandatory banjo-disco. While Mumford & Sons’ biggest strength is their undoubtedly epic and built-up folk-rock choruses, it certainly doesn’t paint a particularly malleable picture of such a critically acclaimed quartet. Maybe this is exactly why Marcus Mumford told The Sun that “We wanted our second album to be an advert for our live shows… I’ll tour until I’m dead as that’s where we are most at home. And I hope that’s come across on ‘Babel.” Perhaps that’s also why this album doesn’t feel much like a well-rounded article, but more like a string of consecutive tracks which often compete rather than compliment.
But ‘Babel’ is most definitely an album of subtleties where musical progression isn’t so obviously noted by Marcus Mumford bursting into some kind of impromptu folk-rap. ‘Below My Feet’ has probably the best build-up out of any song on ‘Babel’ and is immediately reminiscent of the journey created in the track ‘Awake My Soul’ on ‘Sigh No More’; both songs forge a wonderful musical voyage from humble beginnings to climactic chorus, complete with euphoric harmonies to carry the song home. However, it’s the subtleties that set these two songs apart. ‘Awake My Soul’ creates a clearly audible build-up through an increase in tempo midway through the song, whereas ‘Below My Feet’ stays the same tempo throughout, instead opting for a change in time signature during the chorus. This gives the verses that fleet-footed moment by mere musical comparison and makes that last chorus feel so epic; when combined with other subtleties such as the stadium-rock reverb on the drums and the uplifting electric guitar in the background, it would be unfair to say that ‘Babel’ doesn’t have its unique characteristics – you just have to pay attention to find them.
Granted, any of these tracks could easily be switched interchangeably between albums, but should that take away any of the joy of listening to ‘Babel’? Well it shouldn’t, but it inevitably does. If I’m honest, the degree to which you’ll enjoy this album depends on how tired you are of hearing Mumford & Sons’ brand of folk rock in the first place; fans will love it, but if you aren’t that into Mumford & Sons by now, ‘Babel’ isn’t exactly going to be that moment where you find a new blissfully enlightening dimension to the West London folk-rockers.
It’s inevitable that ‘Babel’ will always be compared to ‘Sigh No More’, largely due to the fact that there’s so little to distinguish between them in the first place; unfortunately with tracks like ‘Little Lion Man‘ and ‘The Cave’, this isn’t going to be a particularly fair fight.
All in all, I can relate to living in the shadow of your older sibling, with my sister recently becoming a Doctor while I still slave away, bitterly criticising other people’s hard work whilst eating expired Pot Noodles. But ‘Babel’ knows how I feel, not at all being a complete failure by any means, but never quite being able to live up to it’s older, more successful brother, ‘Sigh No More’. There, there my friend, at least you’ll get good Birthday presents. 7/10
2. Whispers in the Dark
3. I Will Wait
4. Holland Road
5. Ghosts That We Knew
6. Lover of the Light
7. Lovers’ Eyes
9. Hopeless Wanderer
10. Broken Crown
11. Below My Feet
12. Not With Haste
Mumford and Sons’ ‘Babel’ is released through Island Records on the 25th of September.