No surprises, just more singalong anthems for fairweather festival-goers
Two-and-a-half million copies of debut ‘Sigh No More’ shifted in the States alone. A bigger festival draw than a reformed Smiths with Rolf Harris on didgeridoo. Their very own continent-hopping Gentlemen Of The Road grand tour. Doing more for barn dances than any band since Rednex. Mumford & Sons are kind of a big deal these days and ‘Babel’, their long-awaited second album, means serious business. Their folk-tinged, banjo-plucking austerity indie has made them rich and successful beyond their wildest dreams. If they ain’t broke, why fix it?
There are no surprises on ‘Babel’. It’s a retooled, streamlined adaptation of ‘Sigh No More’, market-tested and ready to go. As you might expect from a band riding their kind of wave, there’s no experimentation. It’s as challenging as a one-piece jigsaw – but then you don’t throw on gingham shirts and sackcloth to break new ground. What Mumford & Sons do, with ruthless efficiency, is write surging singalong anthems for fairweather festival-goers. As any number of jealous songwriters will attest, that isn’t anywhere near as easy as they make it look.
Take the opening title track. It’s purpose-built for the biggest stages in the world, stuffed with muddled Biblical allusions and skittering banjo lines. A couple of tracks later, on ‘I Will Wait’, they’re doing it again with a refrain that already seems pregnant with the echoes of all the voices who’ll holler it back to them. If you think that’s big, wait until you hear ‘Lover Of The Light’. Horns! Huge choruses! Hysteria! It’s no surprise it’s already a live favourite. On the epic ‘Hopeless Wanderer’ there’s the sort of vigorous piano banging that suggests someone’s just kicked a stool out from under them. And every time you think they’re all out of bombast, the Mumfords reload and your toes start tapping.
There are slower moments too. ‘Ghosts That We Knew’ is all strings and melancholy, while ‘Lover’s Eyes’ is Mumford & Sons at their most fragile, a brief respite from the bounding banjos. ‘Broken Crown’ is a shade darker than the rest, with Marcus Mumford howling and swearing in frustration. So there’s variety, even if there’s not a lot of nuance. Emotionally it runs the gamut from A to B. There’s lots of waiting and longing but never really any desperate soul-clawing despair – just the gentle heartache that can be solved with the kind of montage the songs will inevitably soundtrack on some maudlin teen drama.
If you can get past the earnest nostalgia and tweedy affectations, this isn’t a bad album, just an average one. They’re gentlemen of the middle of the road. The Mumford & Sons machine still ain’t broke. But you might find yourself longing for someone to throw a spanner in the works.
Kevin EG Perry