Earlier this year, a documentary was released allowing viewers to ride the rails along a journey of Old Crow Medicine Show, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros and Mumford & Sons on their tour in an old American train. A ingenious idea hearkening back to the heyday of rail transportation and how stories and goods passed from town to town, Big Easy Express was more concert video than actually dipping into the backstories of the groups. Regardless of lack of background, dipping back into the musician’s own lives as It Might Get Loud did, the music and talent behind it was undeniable and won Old Crow Medicine Show at least one new fan.
Mumford & Sons started relatively slow and steady amid a burgeoning London folk scene, alongside the likes of Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn, back in 2008. EP after EP was released prior to 2009’s Sigh No More (review), an album that caught on like wildfire worldwide and led to such feats as a headlining train tour out west. Three packed years saw the band steamrolling past folk musicians, tugging the genre into the mainstream to the point we’re now hearing “I Will Wait” on pop radio. Ever thought folk would do that? Likely not. And while people may question the lack of rock or alternative in mainstream, we’re seeing a folk renaissance with Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers that even Dave Matthews could not have imagined in the 90s.
For the unaccustomed, Mumford plays an orchestrated folk complete with rising crescendos that crash into flurries of technical banjos and acoustic guitars. It’s a whirlwind wrapped in chorused vocals that accompany tales of love and lorn, encouraging those listeners to hold fast in the face of the storms of life. The songs are polished recordings, fine and tempered in the studio. “White Blank Page” off their Chess Club Release (review) years ago even held this, aside from Marcus’ vocals being less dynamic due to the mic during the recording and thus more authentic to the genre.
“Babel” gives not even ten seconds before lunging forward, Marcus at the helm with a similar rough recording to his voice. An effect that lends earnest honesty behind his lyrics and tales, the sort you akin to seeing tears in clothing and mud-stained pants of a traveler recounting woe and learned lessons. The urgency, the emotion is there. “You’ll build your walls and I will play my bloody part, to tear, tear them down.” It’s that voyaging bard of Marcus that has attracted listeners far and wide, and his seemingly anachronistic lyrics continue as they did on Sigh No More. “This cup of yours tastes holy, but a brush with the devil can clear your mind, strengthen your spine” off “Whispers in the Dark” may be one of the highlights, while “Lovers’ Eyes” tilts towards the pop end of the spectrum.
It’s that pop essence that draws Babel away from the fellow aforementioned purveyors of folk on radio. It follows a formula, something that doesn’t get shaken up as some may wish over the twelve songs. No lengthy instrumentals or intermissions, a steady, regular tempo through and through keep Mumford & Sons on the rails. It’s that which should be shaken up far more, a bit of daring to the song structure could have done their sophomore full-length a bit of good to offer us moment to breathe. “Ghosts That We Know” approach this, removing much of the elaboration and tendency towards all-for-one one-for-all. These are the moments that serve Mumford & Sons best, albeit they’re too sparse. “Lover of the Light” would not be as memorable had its placement after the slower tempo “Ghosts…” be different. Similarly, the lonesome acoustic ballad “Reminder” alleviates from overload, and is encouraging…albeit clocks in 2/3rds into the album after 6 of 7 songs that, unless closely paying attention, could have shared the same metronome ticks.
It’s that safeness that makes Babel feel like an extension of Sigh No More. However, it’s three years after the world’s discovery and their tours-including the train in the American West. For new listeners, it’s exciting. The songs enrapture the ears and quickens the heart. “Lover of the Light,” “I Will Wait” and “Hopeless Wanderer” with its pounding piano easily stand out, embossing themselves upon memory. They could easily stand amid the columns of Sigh No More, while “Broken Crown” may surpass much of their previous work.
So while newcomers will be treated to a rush, that hurricane of fingerplucks and ivories, the accustomed may be weary of hearing most of the release. Unfortunately, “The Boxer” is available only on the deluxe edition-a superb cover of the ’68 classic Paul Simon number that people should pick up regardless. Slow and steady out of the gates, Mumford & Sons now shifted their folk train into cruise control-something that they’ll need to shake up soon. Old Crow’s Greetings from Wawa included little short tracks of old recordings to break up the bluegrass. And just before, Dave Matthews Band did it superbly on Before These Crowded Streets. Surely these Londoners can master it as well.