Mumford and Sons, ‘Babel’ – Album Review
Say what you will about the band -- surely, they're used to the smack flinging by now -- but if Mumford and Sons look a bit smug on the cover of their latest, they've earned it, by gum.
The softie-core London quartet dragged their delicate little hearts around the globe for years in support of their debut album, 'Sigh No More.' They hustled on the road and gigged with a hyper-Protestant work ethic at just about every thankless mid-sized venue in every interstate flyover town, eventually breaking into the big time the hard way, casting 'Sigh' in platinum six times over and famously backing Bob (that Bob) during last year's Grammys.
That collaboration may not have been a co-sign from the master as much as a sort of an inner-congregational favor. It's well known that Marcus Mumford was raised Evangelical with a capital-E in the Vineyard Movement, the forward-thinking West Coast haven for groovy Christians that embraced Saved Bob in the '70s.
With that kind of pedigree, it's no big surprise that Mumford & Sons may have inadvertently released the Worship Music Album of the Year. 'Babel' wears its theology from the tip of the tongue to the titles of the tracks. The band may not have hit the studio aiming to go all Psalm 100 KJV on us, but they came out with what has to be the most blatantly spiritual album by a major secular artist since Dylan's 'Slow Train Coming.' You can bet this is going to be the 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' for awkward summer church-camp make-out sessions for a long time.
It's just a shame that the album is burdened with all the tropes of the awkward summer church-camp praise song. The album's rich instrumentation -- brass intermingling with dobro, mandolin and an ever-present banjo that suggests a baseball cards in bike spokes -- is wasted on a set of songs that never launches or differs from the Mumford and Sons formula. It's downright insulting to the listener by the time you get to the second half of the album: Mumford sings a doubtful little dirge for a verse, some strings get plucked, everything gets a bit more hopeful, the strings get plucked a bit faster, triumphant brass enters the picture, the band coos a few measures of Arcade Fire "whoa-oah-ohs" and everyone gets all in a lather. Everyone wins a dime-a-dozen musical victory every four minutes. It's melodrama ad nauseum, ferocious and glassy-eyed.
That said, Marcus Mumford's voice is a gorgeous, sincere instrument that can raise goosebumps out of the steeliest listener, Lazarus-style. It's in perfect, piney form in 'I Will Wait,' by far the high point of the album. With that single, the boys successfully squeeze their formula to its fullest, adding in a golden variable with some Louvin Brothers close harmony and making one of the best things you'll hear on the radio this season.
But by the time you hear that same idea over and over and over again, you can't help but feel a bit cheated. Yeah, the band have earned the right to be proud of themselves. And 'I Will Wait' is truly fantastic. But no one should take people's money by releasing the same damn song 15 times over.
I hope Jesus flips over their merch table.