"Babel," the new Mumford & Sons album, was released this week to much anticipation. Word On Fire Research Assistant Jack Thornton reviews the album and discusses what it has to say about grace and redemption.
It’s hard to imagine any real problems or hardships that result from creating a critically acclaimed hit record that catapults a band from obscurity into immense popularity. One issue that certainly accompanies such success, however, is the question of how to adequately follow that album with other valuable records. When a debut album appears that everyone knows, most people like, and many love, there is a lot pressure on the musicians to produce a record that can live up to the quality of the previous one.
You can feel that pressure when listening to Mumford & Sons’ second record, "Babel." The London group’s debut, "Sigh No More," skyrocketed them to the forefront of the indie rock scene, and the folksy bluegrass style they used to get there only made them all the more appealing to the masses starving for quality music in an age where Auto-Tune and bubblegum party anthems rule the pop charts. Mumford & Sons stay within their comfort zone in "Babel," and reuse the formula that made their debut such a success: lyrics about love, grace and flaws, with a fair amount of religious and literary references thrown in, sung with throaty soul by singer-songwriter Marcus Mumford over a popping, bouncing medley of bass thumps, ferocious acoustic guitar strums and dancing banjos.
The group has taken some critical heat for essentially repeating the sound of "Sigh No More," and it’s easy to see why. "Babel" is a perfect example of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, and every track sounds like a slightly more polished version of hits from their debut. It would have been nice to see where these talented young men can go creatively, but ultimately Mumford & Sons didn’t need to drastically change their sound. They didn’t need to make their "Kid A" or their "Sgt. Pepper." Not yet. They’re a young band just discovering success, and their decision to take a little bit more time to hone their current sound is just fine — as long as the songs hold up. And they do. Even though the album isn’t groundbreaking or experimental — and perhaps not quite as good as some of the highlights from "Sigh No More" — the melodies are often lovely and always exciting.
Most of the tracks on
" were crafted on the road, and it shows. Mumford & Sons have been touring almost non-stop since they released "Sigh No More," and recorded
"Babel" during their short rest breaks. Many of the new songs have already been tried out at gigs, and the production by Markus Dravs (who has also worked with Arcade Fire and Coldplay) captures the feel of a live performance. Almost every track on
"Babel" features emotional builds, foot-stomping, fist-pumping dynamism, and rousing sing-a-long choruses perfectly designed for arenas and massive music festivals. These tunes are big, swelling, ocean-sized tracks that the crowds will love dancing and singing to. At least, I know I will.
The massive scale of the production is well-suited to Marcus Mumford’s very serious vocals and lyrics. The music creates a massive, epic sound appropriate to the scope of his words. Mumford’s parents are leaders in an evangelical movement in England, and his lyrics are rife with religious inquiries and pleas for grace. Every song sounds like it could be written either for Mumford’s lovely new wife, actress Carey Mulligan, or for God, or for both. Each track contains the same basic theme of regret and guilt over past sins, a desire for forgiveness and repentance, and the resolve to struggle for virtue.
The lyrics aren’t tongue in cheek or insincere. You believe Mumford when he sings, “And this cup of yours tastes holy / But a brush with the devil can clear your mind / Strengthen your spine … I'm a cad but I'm not a fraud / I set out to serve the Lord,” in “Whispers in the Dark.” There’s doubt and guilt here, but there’s also a strong sense of hope, and it’s real. In “Lover of the Light” Mumford sings:
“I know I've tried, I was not stable
and flawed by pride, I miss my sanguine eyes
So hold my hands up...breathe in and breathe out.
So love the one you hold
And I'll be your goal
To have and to hold
A lover of the light”
Here he seems to be saying that, even though the way may be immensely difficult and fraught with failure, if we hold onto hope and strive for improvement—with both human and divine help—we can overcome life’s difficulties and failures. It’s refreshing to hear something like that given the predominance of either hipster irony or partying and sex on the Top 40 list.
My good friend Octavia Ratiu said it better than I can: “Music, at its core, is a way to express the complexities of the human condition in a way that's accessible to the construction worker and the philosopher alike. Religious worldviews aside, the best songs are ultimately about how fallen we are, and how we get back up again, time after time. Like literature, philosophy, poetry and theology, music is a vessel for truth: the truth of the way in which we love, and hurt, and smile, and laugh, and, sometimes, worship something greater than ourselves.”
These ideas permeate "Babel." Here, in each song, we find an honest attempt to look inside the self, and grapple with the flaws within in order to find goodness and real love. How different from the trash in some of the more popular lyrics in today’s music, such as “I’m sexy and I know it” or “hey, I just met you, but here’s my number so call me maybe” or “baby, baby, baby ooohhhh … baby, baby, baby oooohhhh.” It’s quite refreshing to see some honest introspection that pursues grace and redemption instead of, well, trash.
"Babel" a Bob Dylan or a Beatles record? No, it’s not. It’s probably not quite as good as "Sigh No More" either. But it’s a fine sophomore effort from a very young band with a lot of heart and a lot of promise, and that’s more than enough.
Jack Thornton is the Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
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