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Mumford & Sons - 'babel'

Released on Glass Note Records, Sep. 25, 2012

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

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Mumford & Sons - Babel

Mumford & Sons - Babel

© Glass Note 2012
Mumford & Sons blew onto the scene in 2009 with their hugely successful debut Sigh No More (compare prices) - a disc which declared to an international audience that folksingers in the UK knew well what to do with a banjo. Their intensity in live sets, their command of the spirit of indie roots music, and their appeal well beyond the reaches of American folk made the impression that here was a band with an extraordinary reach and appeal, and more than likely also a bright future. With Babel, they've returned three years later with more of the same energy-packed banjo-shredding.

Nothing New

What made Sigh No More so lovable was its downright refreshing quality - that element which introduced a band approaching folk music in a way that no other band had attempted since, probably, the Pogues. While the Pogues were decidedly more heavily influenced by punk and traditional Celtic music, however, Mumford seemed to be drawing a richer influence from the Appalachian region of America, pulling it together with UK grit. The result was a style of music which was soulful and earnest at the same time as being raw and hard-edged. When Mumford started shredding banjos, it was with a delightful rage, an emotional unleashing. It was the beginning of a sound which rocked the brains of many Stateside acoustic and indie rock music fans.

But, here's the thing.

Three years have gone by and Babel comes off less like a collection of new ideas and more like a collection of songs that didn't make it onto Sigh No More. Though these songs were, verifiably, written over the course of the past three years (Marcus Mumford & co. have been unveiling them at live shows, slowly letting the newer material leak out and be processed by their eager fanbase), the disc presents more of a lateral move for the band. While holding fast to their strong and impressive soundscape, the group delivers songs which just repeat what they did the first time around. Simply put, it's a safe and obvious record from a band whose greatest appeal is their daring.

There are times when "more of the same" comes off as refreshing and wonderful and times when it feels a little disappointing. Whether because so many likeminded bands have emerged in the years since Sigh No More dropped, doing their best to ride on those glorious Mumford coattails, or whether the disc's title packs a wallop of literary allusion (promising something much deeper), the album comes off a bit samey.

The Tower

Biblical tradition places Babel in the context of a world coming together after a great flood destroyed everything on Earth except for a few chosen people. The survivors were then scattered afar with their language changed so they might not immediately understand one another. There are complex layers of message and symbolism in that original story of Babel, leading to the development and definition of human language and culture. Here, Mumford uses the image to talk about productive destruction (his "crumbling down" walls seem to be a necessary step in embarking on a new, promising journey) and the finding of one's voice. The song "Babel" isn't the strongest on the disc, but it certainly packs the wealthiest literary allusion.

The strongest moment comes at Track 5. "Ghosts That We Knew" (purchase/download) is a moment of rare delicacy and nuance, a love song with a melody like old time Appalachia. The harmonies and additional instrumentation is used sparingly and only when necessary. There's no gratuitous noise or angsty overuse of instruments, which seems to creep up now and then on this disc.

The deluxe edition includes three incredibly strong songs (one is a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" with Simon and Jerry Douglas) which portray a decidedly more mature and deliberate future direction for the group. The inclusion of these "bonus" songs only highlights the awareness that this band is capable of much more than what's offered on the rest of the disc. Don't get me wrong - Babel is still a solid and fiercely honest statement - better than so much of what else is available; it just falls short of the band's promise and the incredible artistry they seem to be keeping under wraps...at least for now.

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