New Album Review: Babel

While avoiding the Superbowl on Sunday, I checked out the nominations for the Grammys (wondering how my new favorite Heritage Blues Orchestra stacks up against the competition). Although I really have little respect for award shows and know that the Grammys are really based on sales and not quality, I was interested to see that the most recent release of Mumford & Sons has garnered a half-dozen nominations.

In earlier posts my brother and I debated about Mumford & Sons. I even tried not to like the tracks “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” from their debut Sigh No More. I went as far as to plan to write a review of the Lumineers with the central contrast of a band that knows how to write a song versus one that doesn’t (in this imagined piece, Mumford & Sons did not come out well).

The problem is that the band turned out to be better than I anticipated. Sigh No More is one of the better albums I acquired last year. mumford-and-sons-babel-reviewIndeed, it was good enough that I downloaded the follow-up Babel the moment I could. I expected to be disappointed; I anticipated the opportunity to write the review I wanted to write. And, the deck seemed stacked my way. Many a band falls prey to the sophomore slump.

But Mumford & Sons did not. This album tore up sales charts around the world. Now, sales rarely are a barometer of true quality, but I think this is one case where they are not far off the mark. Here are the three tests that this album immediately passed in my household:

  1. The Baby-test: My daughter (2.5 years) clapped and laughed from the first two bars of this album. She asked for more. Three months post acquisition, she still loves it.
  2. The Wife-test: My wife, who hates anything that sounds folky or country and got so tired of the singles from the first album that she would turn off the radio rather than hear them, kept telling me about this song she really liked that she thought was right up my alley. When she found out she was talking about “I will Wait”, she got quiet but conceded it is a great song.
  3. Listenability: I can listen to this album from beginning to end without needing to skip a track. There are some I don’t love and a few sticking points, but this album passes the most essential test of any full recording

The album’s first single, “I will Wait”, is a masterful combination of emphasizing the band’s strengths and avoiding the weaknesses. It starts with Marcus Mumford’s lead vocal dialed back from an 11 to a 5 or 6 and introduces a nice harmony from the beginning. The guitars still splash while strumming drives the song in lieu of real percussion, but the surprise that works mostly because of the expected wall of sound the band has given us before comes when they pull back on the chorus (the title line “I will wait, I will wait for you”).

The arrangement is nice, but in my head I hear a higher harmony (an extra fifth and maybe a seventh) on the closing “for you”. But, then again, perhaps we’re spoiled by the finer harmonies of the verses that envelop and soften the raspy edge of the Mumford’s voice. When the singer pulls off after one verse with a ‘woo’ and the banjo kicks in with backing production instrumentation (sounds like horns and strings), I think almost anyone listening is along for the ride.

The only real weak moment on the album and the decision I can’t quite understand comes in the extra bonus track, the cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”. The weaker timbre and range of the band’s voices really stand out in relief to someone who knows the original. The banjo-rhythm guitar instrumentation to replace the original fingerpicking doesn’t do the ‘prettiness’ of the original. The track seems like a good inclusion in a live show—where audiences really don’t have the time to think of the original—but here it seems like a rather average release from an American Idol artist.

But not all is lost. In fact, very little is. One of my favorite tracks on the album that shows how interesting this band can be is the fifth track “Ghosts that we knew” which traverses the path between folk and gospel in a way that Paul Simon might like. The track opens with some of the better confessional lyrics the band has penned (“Saw my pain washed out in the rain / broken glass so the blood run from my vein / but you saw no fault, no cracks in my heart / and you knelt beside / my hole torn apart”), but it gets going with the first chorus where gospel inspired harmonies frame the phrase “give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light / cause oh they gave me such a fright”). The piano that helps build the crescendo is just perfect. The second verse’s alternation between banjo and piano phrasing is some of the best instrumental decision I have witnessed. The band continues to blend genres at it adds a country-inspired lead guitar line. If I have a criticism, the climax of the song comes about 30 seconds too late. But I never was a patient man.

In contrast, if we must make one, the sixth track “Lover of the Light” doesn’t have quite the same power because it tries to do too much. The piano returns, the gospel influence seems there as well, but the track is over-produced and cluttered. The chorus “love the one you hold / I will be your gold / to have and to hold” is well-sung, but a little corny and completely undone by the phrase “lover of the light”, which goes beyond corny. Unrepeated, the sequence might be passable, but since the song builds to the moment where the singer shouts/sings “lover of the light”, it is too much. Additional phrases like “sanguine eyes” remind me of some of the worst lyrical offenses of the first album

The first track on the album, “Babel”, is a fine introduction to the collection as it starts with what we’d expect from Mumford & Sons after the first album—the muscular and strained voice of Mumford over wide-open-voiced acoustic guitars with a skittering banjo pattern in intervals. Yet, here and there they get quiet during bridges, as if they have learned to change speeds and volumes. Similar instrumentation works to lesser success on the eighth track “Hopeless Wanderer” which is undone by a return to a wall of sound and some odd vowel vocalization (on which, see below).

The second track, “Whispers in the Dark”, starts at a medium level of volume as the vocalist pulls back a little and the wall of acoustic guitar sound is delayed. The near-quiet brings the grace and talent of the banjo-picking to the fore while the rhythm guitars act more to accent the voice and crescendos while also replacing the near-non-existent percussion. Here, when the harmonies come in, the intervals selected remind me of some of the best arrangements on James’ tunes from the 1990s.

The quieter, more contemplative (and still gospel-inspired) Mumford & Sons come through strongly in the fourth song, “Holland Road” the instrumentation, arrangement and production of which are only attenuated slightly by the vocal which seems pressed and less sharp at this level. The contemplative and quiet approach surfaces on the seventh song “Lover’s Eyes” (which starts quietly and more subtly than the sixth track, “Lover of the Light”). Again, the melody and organization of the song attests to gospel influence—the chorus is powerful musically with its reverent harmonies:

Do not ask the price I pay

I must live with my quiet rage

Tame the ghosts in my head

That run wild and wish me dead

Should you shake my ash to the wind

Lord forget all of my sins

Let me die where I lie ‘neath the curse of my lover’s eyes

The slow but sure build to this fine chorus accompanied by great instrumentation and beautiful harmonies is the key difference between this album and the last. The band doesn’t go stampeding to the climax of the song—they don’t strike it too hard when they get there. They find the tension and beauty in the music and let it linger just long enough to make you want more.

Marcus Mumford does at times finds new depth and movement to his voice. In the eighth track, “Reminder”, he plays with a higher and more tremulous register that brings more warmth and sweetness to his tone. In fact, it is the quality of his vocals that makes this airy and brief love song work. As the shortest song of the album, too, it signals, again, the band’s willingness to stop when they’re ahead (something they briefly forget in the next track).

In fact, the album which has up to 15 tracks depending on which version one acquires, is about 2-3 songs too long. Some songs like “Broken Crown” aren’t bad at all, they just suffer in comparison to the half-dozen great songs on the album. A shorter release might be stronger, but even as it stands the later songs on the album won’t make you turn it off. The guitar line on “Below My Feet” reminds me of Red House Painters or Band of Horses. Again here, the vocals find new range but in the lower registers.

The penultimate “Not With Haste” seems to cover much of the same sound as earlier tracks, but a lyrical depth is reached absent on the earlier album. When the singer croons “do not let my fickle flesh go to waste /as it keeps my heart and soul in its place” he hits upon mortality without being trite or overwrought. The weight, however, is lifted by the Nick Drake-esque finger-picking of the bonus track “For Those Below” which features the most whimsical melody the band has to offer and some of their best sustained harmonies. The contrast between the lyrics, semi-dark on one side, and the sweetness of melody and instrumentation is intentionally and finely bitter. I hope that this track is a hint of things to come and not just a brief flirtation.

Some surprises for those who don’t know too much about the band might be the consistent religious imagery and somewhat overtly worshipful tone (Mumford’s parents run a network of Christian churches). One (like me) who isn’t religious might worry that the band will cross the Creed line and go straight Christian-rock; but we can hope that as with U2 the religion stays personal and inspirational and doesn’t become a mission.

Strange Talker

Strange Talker

The only strange thing on the album that really distracted me is the odd and inconsistent pronunciation of vowels. The “glass” in the phrase “Press my nose up to the glass around your heart” is a british non-nasalized ‘a’ whereas the vowel in the song’s title “Babel” is the American ‘a’ (the diphthong in the American pronunciation of baby, which may be a more historically ‘correct’  pronunciation). But the “ask” in the seventh tracks “do not ask what I must pay” sounds like there is an ‘r’ in it (“arsk”). This phantom ‘r’ returns on the repeated word “fast” in the ninth track “Hopeless Wanderer”. Much of this may be explained by Mumford’s polyglottal life (or at least trans-dialectical: he seems to have absorbed elements from many UK dialects). Perhaps a British listener might not even notice the contrasts. They drive me a bit batty.

I still have not yet quite figured out the global appeal of the band. I know they’re good; I know they write fine songs and I know why I like them (weakness for strings, weakness for gospel and country; love of acoustic guitars, walls of sound and fine harmonies accompanied by ‘big themes’) but I suspect that, as I mused when writing on the Lumineers, their appeal is also explained by what is on offer elsewhere from dance music, to dub step to ambient sounds. Indeed, there must be a cultural symbiosis between the music and a desire for a different time—from fads in old-fashioned cocktails to the return of men’s hats, vests, and tweed Mumford & Sons, like most artists, are a product of a trend rather than its creator.

Not that any of that will keep me from buying album number three whenever it is released. And, I’ll consider anyone who helps to keep the robot apocalypse at bay an ally and champion.

What about you, brother—have you softened on this band yet? Perhaps I am reading them wrong, but they seem really earnest and honest about their music and they all are multi-instrumentalists—is it the britishness that you despise?

8 comments on “New Album Review: Babel

  1. theyoungerj says:

    No, it’s not the Britishness. I love the Brits. I will get back to you on this.

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