CD review: Mumford and Sons’ ‘Babel’ is a worthy second effort

mumford2Confusion. Grace. Hope.

They’re all implied in the title of Mumford and Sons’ sophomore album. Babel was much anticipated. Topping the United States billboard charts, the album was especially popular among college students.  The band has led a blended folk-rock style of music into the mainstream, and comparisons to their first album are inevitable.  Overall, Babel seems like a more musically refined, stripped-down version of the first album.

Musically, the disc is quite a success.  The band has stated that it consciously took more time on album production.  This is evident in the final product.  Rhythms are clearer, melodies more fluid, transitions both simpler and more intriguing.  The texture is widely varied as well.  Some songs use only guitar, while many others employ a broad spectrum of colors.  The banjo is featured prominently throughout, but played in a simple rock style.  Percussion is simple, with extensive use of bass drums.  Combining these three instruments, as well as the harmonic language of the singers, makes for an open, expansive pallet.  Common melodic motifs and textures occur throughout the album, with a few callbacks to tracks from their first CD.  Probably the most notable improvement, however, comes in the voice of Marcus Mumford.

marcusMumford, both the namesake and creative force behind much of the band’s work, has always possessed a voice that was unusual.  Reminiscent of both early folk singers and jazz greats, Mumford can be alternately crooning and fierce.  The band’s first album was marked by occasionally unsuccessful ventures into the higher ranges of that voice, with Mumford sometimes straining to get the notes out clearly.  Happily, this is largely absent from Babel.  Mumford’s range has narrowed, but the texture of his voice has deepened.  Already gritty and powerful, his lyrical and emotional capabilities are evident in the ease with which he sings.  His voice is accompanied by very effective harmony.  Like much of the instrumentation, the harmonic contours are simply arranged but powerfully sung, and all the more effective for their pure passion.  The broad instrumentation combined with an improved and emotional performance from all of the vocalists makes for a wonderful musical experience.

This review will not be entirely sanguine, however.  The engaging musical aspects of this album are, unfortunately, offset by an unfortunate lack of lyrical coherence.  In this area, comparison to the first album is inevitable.  In this respect, Babel does not hold up well.  Sigh No More told a coherent, if not always explicit, story of the search for spirituality, the passion of discovery, and the loss and resolution of faith.  Babel touches on all of these themes, but in a more piecemeal way.  While all of the emotions – sadness, doubt, jubilation, longing – are there, Babel in no way tells the kind of story that Sigh No More does.  Even accounting for this, the album’s emotional progression is strange.  It largely mirrors Sigh No More: the music is initially peaceful, marked by major-key tonality and lyrical excitement. It then dips down into depression and back up into cathartic resolution.  But each song exists far more on its own, rather than part of a larger story.  This means that the album has a more popular feel than their previous work.

One area of the band’s music needs to be given individual attention.  Mumford and Sons has made no pretense about being religious and employing religious imagery in their music.  However, this imagery is often either ignored or made too much of.  It is often very difficult to tell whether the songs are addressed to God, a friend or a romantic partner.  The veiled religious references are not terribly subtle.  If the album is viewed primarily as a poetic explanation of emotions, these allusions can mildly add depth.  If the album is viewed as primarily religious, however, these are much less useful.

Overall, the album is a relatively successful second effort.  Sigh No More launched Mumford and Sons into the mainstream, and one’s opinion of Babel is largely dependent on expectation.  While the lyrical aspects of the album are less internally coherent than Sigh No More, the album makes interesting use of instruments, folk melodies and rhythmic syncopation.  While not breaking new ground, the album refines much of the band’s early approach: Time will tell if the band continues their current course or decides to explore new directions in music.

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About Kelby Carlson

Kelby Carlson is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music working toward his bachelor of music in voice. In addition to ArtsNash he also writes articles for the Vanderbilt Torch, a politically oriented magazine on Vanderbilt's campus. He hopes to pursue a master's degree in vocal performance or a law degree after undergraduate school.