The Bittersweet New Maturity of Mumford & Sons

Like other next-big-thing rockers of the past, they've become a better band for their second album—and that's both great news and kind of a bummer.

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AP

In the stately closing verses of "I Will Wait," the first single from Mumford & Sons' Babel, singer Marcus Mumford vows, "So I'll be bold, as well as strong—and use my head alongside my heart."

That last part is a weirdly even-keeled sentiment coming from a band whose impassioned, heartfelt musical outbursts invite words like "thrashing," "euphoric," "fury," and "rapturous" from fans and critics. But Babel, this week's follow-up to 2009's sleeper megahit Sigh No More, finds Mumford & Sons sounding like a band whose members are, indeed, now using their heads just as much as their hearts.

The stakes are high with the release of Babel. The band's out-of-nowhere rise to superstardom earned them a "year's biggest new band" name-check from Rolling Stone last year and endorsements from household-name musicians like Adele and Adam Levine—the latter of whom said the fact that Mumford & Sons' backcountry, bluegrass-inspired folk could sell records "restored his faith in music."

So with the pressure on, Mumford & Sons have released a record that's cleaner, crisper, and more carefully constructed than their last, but without straying too far from the mega-selling formula. Babel is, at its throbbing, bleeding heart, a sturdily Mumford-y Mumford & Sons album; Marcus Mumford growls and whispers, assorted string instruments get plucked and strummed, and thunderous piano chords signify that yes, the foot-tapping starts here. Fans who love Mumford & Sons for their awesome banjo breakdowns and their blaring, heart-on-the-sleeve sentiments will listen and continue to love Mumford & Sons, while people who detest Mumford & Sons for their derived style or for their invented "threadbare" persona or for their blaring, heart-on-the-sleeve sentiments—or all of the above—will continue to detest Mumford & Sons.

But with the release of Babel, the fast-and-loose English bluegrass preachers suddenly sound less like a band fueled by pure adrenaline and more like musicians who count and practice and play with their eyes open—in the good way, and in the kind-of-sad way.

In the early days of Mumford & Sons (read: three years ago), some of the band's most exciting music sort of sounded it had spontaneously erupted from behind somebody's barn. "Little Lion Man" and the exuberant second half of "Awake My Soul," for instance, sounded like collective fits of wild, foot-stompin'-banjo-pickin' ecstasy that subsided as quickly as they'd arisen.

Babel, on the other hand, has the feel of a record made with careful cohesion. Gone are the days of wayward tempo trip-ups (looking at you, "Roll Away Your Stone") or those kinda-endearing harmonies that weren't quite on key but what-the-hell-who-cares (like Sigh No More's title track). They've been replaced by intricately crafted, crisply executed new material like "Broken Crown" and "I Will Wait."

Once upon a time, Mumford & Sons' most exciting moments sounded like fits of foot-stompin'-banjo-pickin' ecstasy that had erupted spontaneously out behind a barn. Those days are over.

Crystalline twangs fly rapid-fire off "Country" Winston Marshall's dobro so evenly they could put a metronome to shame. Four-part harmonies have been carefully teased into place; multi-layered interludes and piano-chord strikes have been strategically positioned for maximal intensity. With Babel, the band unveils a new knack for majestic mid-tempo ballads like "Holland Road," and Marcus Mumford's writing finds a little more freedom from Sigh No More's overused (but so beloved) start-like-a-ballad-and-build-to-a-roar format.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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