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."
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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.
Basically, what Babel showcases is a tightened-up, streamlined, more polished version of the band introduced on 2009's Sigh No More. Suddenly Mumford & Sons sounds less like a group of performers individually losing themselves in the moment—if you listen closely, you can almost hear Mumford and his not-really-sons making eye contact at every pickup and fermata, nodding at one another the way the members of a string quartet might.
In other words, Mumford & Sons is a better band, functionally, than it used to be. They're more attentive musicians, it seems, than they once were.
And perhaps this is just another stage in the process. Perhaps a pre-second-album woodshedding is just a rite of passage for bands seriously looking to leap from Next-Big-Thing status to being The Big Thing. After all, the notion of a band stepping up its game musically after being thrust into that pressurized position is actually an old, recurring tale. There's another UK-based quartet, for example, that burst onto the scene with a new, unusual sound many years ago: U2. Early reviews of U2's first album Boy deployed words like "brash," "diffused," and "heady rumble," and threw around comparisons to Pink Floyd and the Who. But by the time 1987 and their iconic fifth album The Joshua Tree rolled around, the band had gradually whittled their big, buzzy sound into the razor-sharp, crystalline one that earned the band its legacy among the greats.
And Mumford & Sons frequently attracts comparisons to that other top-selling four-man English rock band, Coldplay. They may be the towering titans of ornately assembled music now, but remember when Coldplay was every college kid's favorite band to fall asleep to? In 2000, Rolling Stone's Matt Diehl joined the chorus of nominations for Coldplay to be the next big name in British rock--and he used turns of phrase like "the ghost of Jeff Buckley," "hypnotic slo-mo," "go-anywhere falsetto," and "a bit of Dave Matthews' breathy folk implosion" to describe their debut album Parachutes' ambling, mellow sound. By the time Coldplay's "ambitious," "aggressive," "majestic" second album A Rush of Blood to the Head surfaced two years later, the band had injected their sound with both newly confident grandiosity and painstaking attention to ornamental details. Ted Kessler at NME marveled that even the opening notes of A Rush of Blood to the Head were "several evolutionary steps" ahead of their debut album's first single. "It's like discovering a precocious nipper has grown into a handsome, questing adult," Kessler remarked.
But for fans who loved Mumford & Sons for being a big, fast-and-loose rumpus (full disclosure: I'm one of those), even that doesn't come without a pang of nostalgia for the old days. Babel feels like suddenly reconnecting with the adult version of someone you fell in love with in his or her angsty teenage years: Some of the exasperating impulsiveness has faded, and with it, some of its messy, unpredictable charm.
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