The story of the Tower of Babel is one of those Biblical tales that’s got everything. Like much of Genesis, it has that incredibly ancient, mythological tone. It delivers a simplistic moral: don’t overstep your bounds, don’t try to get too close to the divine. It’s a story of confusion, and how the inability to communicate a direct message can impair any endeavor.
Mumford & Sons have never had a problem communicating through their music, and so their new album title seems out of place. The prospective loss of a common tongue could imply that the band had come to an impasse after the success of their 2009 debut LP, Sigh No More, with its parade of songs that grow from quiet folk ballads to a pounding apotheosis, over and over again. Perhaps, they were lost stylistically, no longer able to communicate in the language that had allowed them to build a fame tower almost to heaven. Yet with the release of Babel, it’s clear that Marcus Mumford and his crew from West London are speaking more or less the exact same language they always have, as opposed to exploring tangled paths of musical communication. Their message hasn’t changed much (despite a few attempted alterations), contained as ever in high energy, life-affirming songs.
Mumford & Sons infuse the melodies on Babel with simple Americana and a down-home, sing-along stomp that instantly implants itself on the brain. Starting off slowly, often with Mumford singing solo over his acoustic guitar, nearly every track builds with banjo, keys, bass, and vocal harmonies until the entire thing explodes, the folk rock equivalent of a dubstep drop. The already prominent single “I Will Wait” features Mumford’s repeated chorus bordering on a howl, and the compulsive headbanging is practically audible.
Songs like “Below My Feet” and “Lover of the Light” have become familiar staples of the band’s live show, as Babel has been road tested for nearly two years. ”Below My Feet” explores high register acoustic fingerpicking, piano driving the rhythm forward. Its wordless climax, like many other soaring melodic moments on the album, is just as uplifting as the band’s breakthrough radio staples “Sigh No More” and “Little Lion Man”.
It’s tough to fault a band for sticking to a successful algorithm, especially when the Version 2.0 songs are still every bit as beautiful as the 1.0 batch. But it’s also tough to entirely embrace a new album so reminiscent of its predecessor, its minimal shifts struggling to make a positive impact. The apex of “I Will Wait”, for example, bears an uncanny resemblance to that of “The Cave”. Babel plays out like disc two of a hypothetical double album version of Sigh No More, a set of songs with the same breathtaking aura of grandeur, energy, and hopefulness. While the former saw some structural variety, most of Babel is content to follow in its older brother’s footsteps, delivering a slow build from nothing to eruption on practically every track.
The most impactful switch occurs in the recording, the hi-fi production and occasional addition to the band’s instrumental blueprint detracting from the organic songwriting. At times, Sigh No More sounded like four guys standing around a microphone, with an almost analog quality. Babel, on the other hand, is more streamlined than their debut LP, and its shimmering production value sounds more like a stack of individually recorded tracks. Overdubs take away from that rootsy quality so important to their first LP. “Whispers in the Dark” sounds too crisp, and the amount of fun and sweat produced by four musicians on stage is replaced by extra instruments and sounds. “Below My Feet” similarly suffers from the addition of wall of sound vocals near the end. While it’s great to have polished recordings of stellar songs, YouTube videos of these songs in concert, including this past weekend on SNL, deliver more excitement and enjoyment than the album’s renditions.
Still, there are signs that Mumford & Sons can expand and grow in the studio, breaking free of their apparently easily replicable comfort zone. The biggest surprise on Babel is the nearly hard rock arrangement of “Broken Crown”, a sinister mix of electric guitar and drums. Here the overdubs create a sound nearly foreign to Mumford that still fits the song perfectly, revealing a new side of the band’s sound. On these wild moments, the studio version is an upgrade from the concert, with raw glimpses of emotion and humility. If anything, this formula is something to expand on rather than destroy, learning the way to finish that tower to heaven.
Essential Tracks: “I Will Wait”, “Broken Crown”, and “Below My Feet”