Mumford & Sons had a lot to live up to with their second album, considering the enormous success of their first, and renownedly inspiring live performances. Of course, they have also endured a large amount of negative reaction, from folk aficionados on their ‘shallow’ take on the genre , of those politically inclined for their privileged background, the list goes on. I doubt this album will change many opinions, but it should.
The opening, palm-muted chord of Babel, the track and album, pretty much summarises itself; it is instantly recognisable as a Mumford & Sons track, it builds musical tension, but somehow it’s a bit two-dimensional, a little artificial-sounding. The opener crashes fairly instantly into a characteristic storm of strumming and stomping, which continues as something of a trend. The band’s live show is fantastic, and they’ve been touring almost non-stop, but it seems as the album is trying a little too hard to fill the stadiums which M&S have become accustomed to playing. Big chicken-scaring swells of music are too frequent and often bypass the crescendoes and swirls of orchestration that made them so special on Sigh No More; electric instruments begin to make a strange appearance in tracks such as ‘Whispers in the Dark’ and ‘Hopeless Wanderer’, which just seem out of place and a very active push towards the more mainstream indie scene; worst of all, the vocals are a subtle disappointment. Right from the off, it sounds as if Mumford is forcing his voice into the gravelly sound that emerges naturally in his more emotive vocal phrases, which I can only assume he does in order to emphasise it as distinctive. This is further reinforced as a shame by the mixing of the vocals: one of the reasons that this reviewer really fell in love with Sigh No More was the intensity of the close vocal harmonies that, while they appear on Babel, do so less frequently and lower in the mix.
This is, however, all relative. Babel is still a good album. Those who are fans already will almost certainly love it, because the overall sound hasn’t changed that much. This is not necessarily a bad thing; far too many bands sacrifice the opportunity to refine their sound in their second album to try something different. Tracks such as ‘Holland Road’, ‘Ghosts That We Knew’, ‘Lovers Eyes’ and bonus tracks ‘The Boxer’ and Where Are You Now’, could all have been on the last album. Which is a compliment. Of course, that’s not surprising considering that many tracks, were written as much as 18 months ago, and have been played frequently at live shows.
The bonus tracks actually confuse me. I can only guess as to why they were excluded from the main body of the album (except ‘For Those Below’, which is not great). They are fantastic pieces of music, featuring the vocal harmonies that the rest of the record lacks, and fiddle and slide guitar parts that should definitely have been utilised more in song writing. These tracks are precisely what their second album should have focused on, a maturing of the original sound with a little evolution, but without straying too far from the sound that their fans adore.
However, an area in which the album probably exceeds the first is the lyrical content. As is implied by the title, religious quotation and themes form a large part of this, which is, above all, considerably darker and more emotionally ragged than Sigh No More. There is a great deal of depth to the lyrics, partially due to this emphasised religious element to love and loss, which is always a big tick in my book, and clearly impacts on the tone of the vocals in some cases. ‘Lovers’ Eyes’, for example, probably the standout track, is simply lovely, a moving track, which is palpably painful for Mumford to sing, releasing the naturally engaging timbre of his voice.
What ultimately emerges with Babel is a real effort to make the same music that caused such a huge reception with Sigh No More. To some extent, this is achieved, and the sections of the album where this comes through, in particular tracks 4-8 and the last two bonus tracks (why they were not on the main body of the album I can only guess at), the sound is nothing new for the band, but great music nonetheless. At other times, for example for the first three tracks, ‘Hopeless Wanderer’ and ‘Below My Feet’, this mark is somewhat missed. Sure, it’s still good music, but they can do better; it sounds like another, less talented band imitating their sound for the less fussy indie rock gig circuit. It just goes to show that a smile grew on my face as spotify instantly started playing ‘Sigh no more’ after finishing the album – they can, and have done much better. It’s a good album, but you should be at least a little disappointed by it.