Some sentences always come with a qualifier. ‘I like Mumford & Sons [Twitter/Facebook]’ is one of them. They’re one of those bands that one always has to justify liking, as their folk rock isn’t considered ‘acceptable’ to like, at least nowadays, after the singles from 2009’s Sigh No More became overplayed and people suddenly turned against them. My own variation on this would be, ‘I like Mumford & Sons, but the best songs on their debut weren’t the singles.’ I realised this after a while, and it’s something I stand by even now. I’ll take Timshel or Thistle & Weeds over Little Lion Man any day of the week.
They return to the fray next week under a considerable amount of pressure, and liable to be shot by both sides. Babel, whilst it is assuredly a progression, might not be the step forward that some hoped it would be; by the same token, people who wanted Sigh No More 2.0 will be disappointed. Yes, those people exist, but that’s an argument for another time. This time around, the best song definitely isn’t the single – I Will Wait is as rousing and anthemic as we’ve come to expect from Marcus Mumford and company, but it’s a song that could have fit on the debut without anyone batting an eye. It’s their safety net, and really, they’re much better than that.
Plenty of songs on the album have single potential, of course, but Babel is pound-for-pound better than its predecessor. Of course, I speak from the perspective of someone who thinks the years have not been kind to Sigh No More, so your mileage may vary on this one, but the widescreen qualities of the title track, the album opener, are rather difficult to resist. Marcus’s voice sounds rougher, like he’s trying to push himself, and by the end of Whispers in the Dark, there’s a definite sense that the band have a similar goal. The fragile-sounding Holland Road finds them mining darker lyrical depths (‘I knew your pain and the effect of my shame, but you cut me down’).
The bravery inherent in throwing out something of a darker timbre so early on helps the album to move up a gear, and it does so in emphatic fashion with the six-minute Ghosts That We Knew, its lyrics dealing with the difficult topic of depression, and its musical palette expanded considerably from what had gone before. On the whole, the byword for Babel seems to be ‘evolution’, and not ‘revolution’, and that’s fine with me. Besides, there’s one thing it definitely has in common with its predecessor – it gets better as it goes on, really hitting its stride with the harmony-heavy Lover’s Eyes, and not letting up from there. The piano-driven Hopeless Wanderer is the dark horse of the album, and establishes itself as an album highlight as if from nowhere, and the short-yet-sweet, waltzing Reminder is an all-too-brief breather that arrives just before we’re plunged into the album’s impressive final third.
This album isn’t going to be for everyone, and there will be some who avoid it precisely because of who’s behind it, but for what it is, it’s a job well done. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – just tighten it up and give it some polish. That approach has worked for them. Not With Haste is a fine closer, and if it sounds familiar to some of you, it’s because a noticeably different version (Learn Me Right) was on the soundtrack for the newest Pixar film, Brave. This time, it’s given a much more tender treatment. While I prefer the latter (for numerous reasons), the band’s version does a good job of closing an album that proves that they’re far more than a flash in a pan. This is a step up from previous material in many ways, and yes, the haters will be out in force soon enough, but the success that surely awaits Babel will be, in my opinion, well-deserved.
Babel is released next week on Island Records.