Album Review: Mumford & Sons’ Babel

Mumford & Sons - Babel

I was introduced to Mumford & Sons during the summer of 2010 while working as a defense contractor in Afghanistan. Stateside, Sigh No More was already a viral hit, but being overseas I hadn’t heard anything of the band until the economics podcast Planet Money used the single Little Lion Man as the intro music to one of their podcasts; I was instantly intrigued. 

A little Googling and I had a new album to obsess over. Throughout that summer, Sigh No More remained on heavy rotation on my iPod. I found it an engaging combination of folk sensibility without some of the insipid tendencies of other folk artists I’ve run across. Sigh No More was energetic, emotive, mysterious, and slightly dark with a pessimistic edge. I loved it.

Babel is the most recent album from indie folk/folk rock band Mumford & Sons. It was released September 25th in the United States. Babel debuted at number 1 on both the U.K. and U.S. charts, and is the biggest selling release for any U.S. album of 2012 thus far. Babel is the follow up album to Mumford & Sons’ debut album, Sigh No More.

Babel, sadly, hews a little too closely to the same formulas that Mumford & Sons debuted on Sigh No More. After a weekend of giving Babel thorough playtime on my iPod – Mumford & Sons really makes for fantastic running music – I find it’s growing on me, but I’m still not convinced that my first impression of the album is entirely unfair. Namely, that Babel is more of the same; an extension of Sigh No More, but without the benefit of novelty that helped make Sigh No More so interesting. Even so, if you enjoyed Sigh No More you will most likely enjoy Babel. Don’t go into it with your expectations too high, and I think you’ll find an enjoyable soundtrack for the fall.

One note on the YouTube embeds below:  Studio tracks for Babel on YouTube appear to be in the process of being taken down by someone named Rico Management (their label?  Not sure.) Some of the tracks below are live versions, some appear to be recorded versions slightly different than the version on the album.  Whatever. Stupid DMCA.

Babel / Whispers in The Dark / I Will Wait

Babel opens up with three barn burners in quick succession: Babel, Whispers in The Dark, and the first single from Babel, I Will Wait. They are catchy songs for sure, and a high energy “welcome back!” to fans. Mumford & Sons open the album on full throttle, and keep Babel red lined for the duration of these three tracks. My initial take away, however, was that they easily could have been singles from a Sigh No More b-side or a deluxe extended version of the album.

Even though Mumford & Sons breaks no new ground with this trio, the longer I take in the album as a whole, the more I appreciate this approach to opening their sophomore release. Especially when listening to Sigh No More and Babel consecutively (as I did yesterday during an extended run), this trio of songs provides a very nice bridge between the two albums and makes the experience feel surprisingly contiguous.

I chose to group the three opening tracks together at this point because they feel very much like one extended track that the band chose to break into three separate songs. I think they easily could have put in some very minor bridges and opened Babel with an epic 12 minute folk rock tour de force.

Holland Road

Holland Road is, in my opinion, the low point of the album, and hey, why not get it out of the way early? The song showcases some of the worst excesses and cliches of Mumford & Sons’ peculiar style. Namely, Marcus Mumford’s tendency to get louder, and louder, and louder as an approach to expressing passion in his singing. By the end of the song his vocals are over whelming (not in a good way), and you’re just glad he’s done screeching into the microphone.

The band also phones it in a bit, I think, both musically and lyrically on this track. It’s the same 3/3 time signature they’ve used on so many of their previous songs, utilizing the heavy, percussive bass drum on the down beat, the same approach to the banjo they used extensively on Sigh No More, and the lyrics are plain repetitive. To the extent you can say Mumford & Sons is formulaic – because really, is there anyone else out there in popular music doing what they do? – they manage to achieve that effect here.

Ghosts That We Knew

With Ghosts That We Knew, Babel begins to differentiate itself from its sister album. It is a lovely little song, and although Marcus Mumford continues to over sing a bit here – the song is quite affective as a quiet, aching ballad, and doesn’t need Marcus to inject vocal intensity to add feeling – Ghosts That We Knew is a joy to listen to, especially with headphones. The band breaks out some really sharp harmonies and even manage to escape their banjo heavy folk sound to demonstrate an ear for other genres, as the track transitions to an almost straight forward country ballad, steel guitars and all, about two-thirds of the way through the track. They keep the banjo picking away, but it takes a back seat here to standard Americanized six string guitar and piano parts.

Lover of the Light

The album continues it’s movement away from the sounds of Sigh No More here. I found some interesting use of scale progression in the melody and time signature changes that the band hasn’t used previously. The lyrics get repetitive towards the end, and Marcus falls into screeching a bit during the more energetic parts of the song, but the song is otherwise strong enough to make these short comings fairly easy to overlook.

Lovers’ Eyes

Without taking a break, the album moves straight into Lovers’ Eyes. The harmonies are front and center here, and the band hints again at some country/western influences with the guitar parts early in the track.


A short track, at 2:04, Reminder is a good show case of Marcus Mumford’s ability to sing without over powering the rest of the song. Sometimes I wish he’d exercise this kind of restraint a little more frequently, but I guess we’ll take what we can get.

Hopeless Wanderer

This is a strange song, and if Holland Road weren’t so grating, I’d pick this as the weakest track on the album. It begins with a quiet piano, adding gentle harmonies, but transitions suddenly to aggressive, percussive guitars and piano. It’s almost like they’re evoking a tense moment from a Broadway show tune. If I knew much about Broadway show tunes, I’m sure I could make a specific reference, but give it a listen – I think you’ll hear what I’m describing.  The frenetic banjo picking towards the end is kind of fun though. Every time I hear that portion of the song, I think of the ending to this old Tom & Jerry cartoon.

Broken Crown / Below My Feet / Not With Haste

Babel closes the same way it opened – three songs that flow naturally from one into the other, and I think need to be listened to together in order to fully appreciate the thematic transitions from one to the other.

Broken Crown opens this trio with a song of discord, anger, and rejection.  It is the best track on the album, hands down. Forceful, energetic, dark, with a driving, relentless rhythm.  Mumford & Sons also could teach some other artists about the affective and judicious use of the f-bomb.  This is the only track on the album with cursing, and its absence from the rest of the album makes the usage here particularly startling, which is sort of the point with curse words. That, and Marcus Mumford’s English pronunciation of the expletive as fock, as opposed to the Americanized  fuck, give it extra lyrical impact.

Below My Feet picks up with the same pointed rhythm as Broken Crown, but early on transitions to a lighter, more positive tone, bringing some relief from the unrelenting aggression of Broken Crown. If Broken Crown is a dark, destructive storm, Below My Feet is that transition when the driving rain lets up and the clouds, while still present, aren’t quite so threatening. Below My Feet is a hopeful and uplifting prayer for openness and connectedness.

Babel closes with Not With Haste, a simple, straightforward, optimistic ballad. An admission of the necessity and inevitability of the narrator’s connection to another, in spite of the conflict expressed in Broken Crown, and an acquiescence to and embrace of  his vulnerability in the relationship.

For Those Below / The Boxer / Where Are You Now

The deluxe version of Babel includes three bonus tracks: For Those Below, The Boxer (a straightforward cover of the Simon & Garfunkel standard), and Where Are You Now. All three tracks are enjoyable if unremarkable, and I recommend that you spend the extra couple bucks to get the deluxe version of Babel.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think Babel is a good album, and worth purchasing. Mumford & Sons definitely fell prey to the sophomore slump, but still managed to release a record with more strong tracks than weak ones.  Babel’s just not the unqualified home run that Sigh No More was.

Lyrically, I found Babel a mixed bag. On the one hand, Mumford & Sons manages some really striking moments. “Press my nose up to the glass around your heart”, from the opening track, is one of the most affective metaphors I’ve heard in a long, long time. “I will love with urgency, but not with haste”, from the closing track Not With Haste, is borderline mantra worthy; I give it a month before it starts showing up as a tattoo on the rib cages of earnest young white women everywhere. On the other hand, the band’s over use of vaguely Christian vocabulary and faux spiritual imagery threatens to turn them into the Creed of folk rock.  The rhyming is sometimes awkward and clumsy, and the tendency towards extending songs by repeating the chorus needs to be nipped in the bud by their next producer.

Musically, Babel was overall too similar to Sigh No More, using the same instrumentation and overall sound Mumford & Sons produced on their debut album. Again, some strong moments – such as with I Will Wait, Ghosts That We Knew, and Broken Crown – aren’t enough to differentiate the album and let it succeed on its own. I definitely think that, had Sigh No More not been such an overwhelming success, or if Babel had been Mumford & Sons’ debut album, it would not be selling as well as it currently appears to be selling. I’ll definitely be interested to see how the band continues to evolve their sound on their third album, if at all.

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