With the seasons changing comes a wave of Americana steeped indie-folk. The ethereal Avett Brothers, the Southern fried Band of Horses, and the elder statesman Bob Dylan himself all have albums out now, and Brit chart toppers Mumford & Sons are the latest. Of any of these post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? rockers, Marcus Mumford and his crew are the most earnest, and they have the most arena ready choruses. This winning combination propelled their American debut album Sigh No More to Number One on the wave of lots of critical acclaim. Babel doesn’t significantly alter the Mumford & Sons sound: apart from Winston Marshall’s banjo being used more liberally this record is in the same vein as their prior. I don’t see this as a problem, so much, because it does the Mumfords no favors to alter a sound they’ve only just established as their trademark this early in their careers. They’re establishing a brand, and a good number of overhyped and under-talented indie acts have fizzled after thinking they had to inject their records with artificial diversity. Where Babel loses out in comparison to Sigh No More is in the strength of its singles. Lead focus track (“singles” really aren’t a thing anymore, huh?) “I Will Wait” can maybe stand next to “Roll Away Your Stone” but doesn’t reach the holler-stomp nirvana of “Little Lion Man”.
Apart from that, this album works more as a whole than the sum of its parts. It’s a rumination on loss and redemption, wearing all its religious influence right on its sleeve and in the album title. Mumford comes from a family of evangelicals, just like the Followill brothers before him, and it serves their revival tent image well. I don’t think any vocalist in music today sounds more blatantly British than Marcus Mumford (his vocal phrasing on this record reminds me of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame) and at times their bluegrass obsession has felt like an approximation of white Southern minstrelsy rather than a genuine passion. My favorite quote came from Marshall sometime last year, where he opined that his banjo playing in America has to be up to snuff because, unlike his home countrymen, Americans can tell when you’re dogging it on the banjo. I can only wonder what he thinks will pass muster with American audiences in matters of chewin’ tobacco and incest! Despite their in-authenticity when it comes to the ways of old timey Southern music styles, the religious angle will produce a huge common ground with the audience they must perceive they have. (The fact that the majority of their fans are the same middle class yuppies who flocked out & bought O Brother by the droves, fans who wouldn’t know grits from a cotton boll, is irrelevant.)
Babel starts off with the arena sized lovelorn tracks like the title track and “I Will Wait”. All these songs, despite their bittersweet lyrical tone, produce the kind of eye-welling joyful effect that only can happen when an artist is playing to row 47D and the mood sweeps through a teeming mass. Around the fifth track, the ruminative and bare boned “Ghosts That We Knew”, the mood takes a shift toward the more genuinely devastated and heartbroken. Tracks like the harmony-rich “Lover’s Eyes” and the fragile and defeated “Reminder” place Mumford as a broken man, wracked with guilt and pain at love lost and mistakes made. From these crushing lows comes their stab at redemption in the arms of the Lord: “Hopeless Wanderer” begins with the lyric “You heard my voice/ I came out of the woods by choice”. This is Marcus making his move at having agency in his own redemption. After the middle third being filled mainly with low-key downtempo numbers, “Hopeless Wanderer” builds to a crescendo and shows some spark midway through. From there they move to the bluntly religious “Broken Crown”, set adrift on a shanty-style picked riff that is redolent of Irish folk, a pretty clear middle ground for the Mumfords sound. “Not With Haste” closes things with a sliver of hope and a Scottish lilt, bringing things full circle. From wide-eyed wonder to bitter regret, to redemption in the eyes of God and a chance at a happy ending, Babel tells a story in a cinematic arc, and the strength of the whole lifts it from sophomore slump status.
In all, Babel will not make the mark that Sigh No More did. But the melancholy tone and breezy banjo are perfect for listening on these dark fall nights, on a porch or near a bonfire, when the oncoming cold of winter and regret of summer’s good times having passed by meet. For a band of sad English boys pining for love lost and old ways lost to the march of time, that’s about all you could hope for.