In only its second studio album, British folk band Mumford & Sons released the highly anticipated “Babel” earlier this week, two years after the critically acclaimed “Sigh No More.” The album’s folk base is only the length of a banjo away from the band’s original album, leaving listeners with a familiar taste that draws on at the start, but develops a plot line never before seen in an album of its sort.
“Babel” surprises fans with a facsimile to that of the band’s first attempt at success. Employing the same folk and bluegrass-like sounds, Mumford & Sons developed a compilation that featured several songs written during or shortly after the recording of the first album.
Lead vocalist Marcus Mumford, guitarist Ted Dwayne, accordionist Ben Lovett and backup vocalist “Country” Winston Marshall make up the musical quartet founded in the West London folk scene of the early 2000s. The strange ally between Mumford & Sons’ music and historic literature was for the large part abandoned on its most recent album, opting for a more traditional style of lyrical development. All four members participate in writing songs, which bred the international success of “Sigh No More” and a trans-continental hype that followed Tuesday’s U.S. release date.
Nothing is lost to a listener at the start of Mumford and Sons’ latest addition. The first track, “Babel,” could throw a newcomer off what the band is truly about. Instead of relying on the rhythm-reliant folk band takeoff, it seemed as though the amps were turned up almost a tad too high with this song. Listening, the band sends a clear message screaming, “We’re back!” but the message is mottled by the throbbing kick drum and harsh acoustic strumming. That abrasive start eventually wears off, leading to a beautiful bridge slightly before the halfway mark on the track, and a few well-placed shouts between band members, who have, since the first album, considerably added to their instrumental resumes.
Through the first two or three songs on the album, markedly matured instruments are heard, paired well with the start of what listeners soon recognize as a ballad between songs. A story line makes its way to the surface midway through “Babel,” but it is almost hidden from view by the punch of the first three tracks, which could have just as easily been featured on the previous album without sounding out-of-place – a truly unfortunate move for the folk band, considering what the album buries under its rough and tumble start.
Listeners of the record need only to listen on to learn what Mumford & Sons has taken two years to create.
The album’s fourth track may have been a last straw for some Mumford and Sons fans. “Holland Road” begins with almost the same acoustic intro as “After the Storm,” the sad ending to “Sigh No More.” But partway through the song named after the famous London road, the two tracks diverge like the characters within it. An explosive rhythm guitar-banjo duo atop all four singer’s voices introduces the listener to a new Mumford & Sons beyond the twisty lyricism and dragging instrumentation that was its first album. The band employs a catty brass band that more than makes up for the track’s distinctly familiar start.
From there, the story begins. The album follows the rocky relationship between a man once afraid of his own emotions who has introduced his true self to his lover with a varied response. Some songs through the middle of the selection give the impression of a break-up while hope and a homecoming imply a repaired relationship near the beginning and very end. The song selection was a crucial part of the album, because many of the songs featured were tested on the road of a North American tour. Mumford makes direct mentions of traveling, and some variation of the word “home” is used in almost every track.
That song selection becomes even more crucial for fans following the lead-up to Tuesday’s release. The song “Holland Road” was originally paired with a track titled “Home,” which met criticism on the road and after a brief YouTube release earlier this year for being unoriginal and boring. Despite its gravelly nature, however, “Home,” along with bonus tracks “For Those Below” and “Where Are You Now” are truly missing parts of the equation on this album, and, ordered more succinctly, would tell a beautiful tale.
The raw nature of the album allows the everyday listener to enjoy it without a sense of loss however, and the remorseful feel on tracks like “Reminder” make room for a collection proudly balanced.
Reportedly, many of the songs on the album were recorded full-piece live, without much studio editing, which is a huge compliment to the band’s raw talent and a tip of the hat to the folk roots from which it comes. The harmonies and sobering stories throughout the compilation make for a listening experience unmatched by much of the today’s folk-era music. Plus, the obscurity of the lyrics makes for a delightful mystery that almost any dedicated listener will solve in the religious nature of “Below My Feet.”
Mumford & Sons lost very little with its newest release. Though ordered and topped off oddly, the openness and beauty of the album is found within the honesty of Mumford’s charismatic singing. The way he pours his heart and soul into a microphone gives everyone the opportunity to join along in the boys’ journey through love. Emotion is the enunciating value of almost every song, and Mumford’s near flawless voice blends well with the bluegrass trio behind him. The gravelly and grisly nature in some of his songs only provides a sense of release when the lyrics become too tense.
Overall, the intimate moments are the story behind “Babel.” The times when the music subsides and Mumford and his colleagues use challenging lyrical metaphors to make direct points make the listening experience a rhythmic, foot-tapping, front-porch joy, surrounded by teasing arduous low points.