[Island / Glassnote, 2012]
There was a time—not that long ago, really—when I would have thought it ludicrous that a bluegrass-style stomp could rattle an arena and move that many people at once. The banjo is meant for backwoods cabins, front porches and tiny clubs, and that’s just fact. While true, the exclusionary nature of that statement is erroneous. Banjos belong in arenas too. It just took seeing Mumford & Sons play under the stars on Coachella’s main stage a couple of years ago for me to realize that. Not only did the folky British quartet play to perhaps the largest crowd of the weekend, but they commanded it, playing like they were perpetual festival headliners with decades of experience under their belt. The anthemic nature of their music had the masses singing in unison, dancing with complete abandon. Strangers hugged. Tears were shed. It was a moment. A long series of moments, in fact. It’s astonishing to think that the band moving tens of thousands of attendees to rejoicing together, becoming a family for an hour or so, had only one record out at the time. With Mumford & Sons’ follow-up, Babel, the band makes their push for the first of many years to actually be those perpetual festival headliners that they played like that night.
Very rarely has an artist seen such a meteoric rise to prominence in such a short amount of time. Their debut record, Sigh No More, is certified double platinum and on its way to a third, peaked at number two on the U.S. Billboard charts, and continues to dominate radio nearly three years after its release. All of this is in a time when record sales are at their worst; their infectious blend of empowering melodies and acoustic instrumentation has permeated the majority of households around the world. As is the norm, with success come detractors. Many critics have all but written Mumford & Sons off as just another radio-friendly pop group with not much beneath the surface of their rustic aesthetic, perhaps unworthy of the level of fame they have reached. It begs the question, however: would the critics be singing a different tune were these guys to be playing the backwoods cabins, front porches and tiny clubs I had previously thought the banjo’s home? It’s irrelevant, I know. Judging by the fact that Mumford & Sons didn’t budge an inch on their follow-up shows that they find it to be quite irrelevant as well. They know who they are, and that’s who they’re going to be. It’s an admirable stance in a business that always wants you to be something you’re not.
It’s evident from the start that Mumford & Sons is taking that stance on Babel, rather than bending for critics, they are further solidifying their identity as couriers of bluegrass-infused pop music not out of place on either a front porch or its truly inevitable home, the radio. The album opens up with “Babel,” singer/guitarist/namesake Marcus Mumford’s lone acoustic guitar strikes quickly giving way to explosive bursts of percussion, ushering in the supporting cast—“Country” Winston Marshall mimics the rolling English hills with his fluid banjo playing, providing a terrain for Mumford’s mind to wander, allowing his emotional lyrical ventures to roam. With the sharp, punctuated percussion and thick stand-up bass provided by Ted Dwane, the band picks up right where they left off with Sigh No More, providing overpowering bursts of light that immediately get feet tapping and emotions running—two of the group’s most truly pure gifts.
Though the record delivers a very unified, uplifting message, not only lyrically but musically as well, there are many dynamics at play throughout Babel that keep it sounding fresh and exciting. “Hopeless Wanderer” is propelled by fierce acoustic guitar strokes played by Mumford with a ferocity you might find on some of our favorite heavy metal records, while “Broken Crown” is a darkly-tinged, banjo and mandolin-led trip to the depths of a troubled soul. There is one consistency even on such varied songs—the intensity with which they are played. There is a love and passion behind the songs on Babel that is impossible to shroud; even the lightly bouncing “Below My Feet,” led by Ben Lovett’s subtle piano touches, has the ravenous spirit of the band shining through.
From those first drum strikes until the last note’s sustain wears off on Babel, the pace never lets up. Mumford has a keen awareness of how and when to use space, serving to make the grand moments sound even huger through the record. It was one of the striking things about Sigh No More, but the follow-up shows that as a songwriter he has grown more confident in his role and how to wield his pen in the most impactful way. The lead single, “I Will Wait,” shows off not only the band’s use of the effective quiet-loud dynamic that has such a way of rousing the listener’s spirit, but also Mumford’s way of speaking to the listener’s heart with relatable and moving lyrical themes. The simple “I will wait for you” chorus can be applied to so many aspects of life and feel personal to any given person’s situation, and the uplifting nature with which those words are sung are empowering to those that feel down. However, the ambiguity of the verses is what makes Mumford’s songwriting stand out; lines like “And I came home like a stone / And fell heavy in your arms / These days of dust which we’ve known / Will blow away with this new sun,” can be pointed either to a significant other with open arms after a long day during hard times, or perhaps to the sky above, a man relinquishing the fate of his life to a higher power.
I believe it is this aspect of Mumford & Sons’ music that has them speaking to so many people in such a huge way. Sure, the huge stomp-along, shout-along choruses that are abundant on Babel will make for good radio, fill the growing venues the band plays on their treks across the world, but the universal language their songs speak is hard to ignore. As Mumford sings, “So give me hope in the darkness so that I will see the light,” on “Ghosts That We Knew,” he touches on a concept that any person in any situation could have at one day related to. It just so happens that in this version of the world we live in, more people than ever could use a little light. There are far worse places to find that light than the power of a song.