Nearly three years after the release of their debut album Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons’ sophomore album Babel delivers once more with the English quartet’s instantly recognizable sound – complete with banjo and lead singer Marcus Mumford’s gravelly voice. While the term “folksy” is sometimes thrown around pretty liberally (admittedly, probably mostly by myself), Mumford & Sons do manage to infuse their folk-inspired string instruments with an accessible pop sound that keeps them from sounding too obscure.
The album, released on Sept. 25 in the U.S. and produced by Markus Dravs, has 12 tracks and opens with the eponymous track “Babel,” one of the album’s best. It follows much like “Little Lion Man” from the band’s first album, perhaps a little too closely for some, with a strong, crisp and staccato string opening and powerfully enunciated lyrics that complement the strings as they build up to dramatic climaxes within the song. The lyrics, if not as striking as those in “Little Lion Man,” still pierce through the song: “I know my weakness / know my voice / but I believe in grace and choice … So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been / you know our breath is weak and our body thin.” Like “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man” before it, “Babel” is the powerhouse that carries this album.
The second song, “Whispers in the Dark,” has a much lighter tempo and a more lyrical melody. Still fast-paced and attention-grabbing, it’s also among the best in this release.
Some listeners will probably be upset by the band’s lack of innovation. These accusations will not be without merit: While Mumford & Sons seems to have perfected their pop-folk ballad sound, this mastery looms precariously close to complacency, and the band’s powerful use of strings that crescendo along with the vocals that made “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man” such standouts in Sigh No More seem to be used rather generously and without much discretion throughout all of Babel. Seeing as many of the songs were either written or being thought up as the band recorded Sigh No More, it seems natural that their sound has not produced anything groundbreakingly new. Babel seems more like a companion piece to their first album than a totally new venture – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this (especially if you loved that first venture). That being said, it is true that Babel doesn’t take the risks that we saw in its predecessors, songs such as “Winter Winds” and my personal favorite, “Timshel,” which is haunting and yet reassuring in its minimal use of strings and the powerfully harmonized vocals of the four members of the band.
Their sound varies most among tracks such as “Lover’s Eyes,” “Reminder” and “Not With Haste.” For the most part, these (with perhaps the exception of the very decent “Not With Haste”) do not come close to the emotional range of the band’s earlier songs – perhaps precisely because they try too hard to do so. After about the fifth track in Babel, the songs quickly begin to meld together: Even if they are definitely catchier and more accessible than the sometimes awkward “Awake My Soul,” “Thistle & Weeds” and “Dust Bowl Dance,” they lack the much more varied personality among the latter that gave them their charm. The biggest exception is possibly “Where Are You Now,” available in the deluxe edition (which adds three additional tracks), where the strings are again toned down for a stronger, more acoustic sound as the band plays up the strengths of their member’s combined vocals.
Despite these reservations, though, Babel is an exceptionally enjoyable album that can be listened to on end: There are no particularly weak songs, and as noted earlier, they are definitely catchy. Amidst some other fantastic recently released albums such as Coexist by The xx and Battle Born by The Killers, Mumford & Sons hold their own. There are a few gems that stand out even if most of the songs sound similar on the surface, and the album will likely be put on heavy repeat in my Spotify account. It’s one both fans and especially new listeners will be sure to love.