Mumford and Sons: Babel

For many fans of music that have grown weary of the auto-tuned tedium of the current pop scene, the unexpected rise of Mumford and Sons has come as a much-needed and welcome breath of fresh air.  Bursting onto the scene in 2009, their debut album, Sigh No More, was a gritty, literate and yet oddly jubilant affair that quickly climbed the charts and earned the band a passionate and devoted following. All at once, Marcus Mumford and his neo-folk bandmates were different from everything else that was happening in popular music.  And because of this, many saw fit to straddle them with the unenviable task of saving popular music from the likes of Lady Gaga and her image-first peers.

In that way, it is not terribly unfair to say that Mumford and Sons occupies a similar ground to that which was held by Nirvana in the early 1990s.  For just as Nirvana rode the raw, underground success of Bleach to the studio-crafted heights of Nevermind, so too does it appear that Mumford will be following the unpolished Sigh No More with a more finely tuned, and carefully crafted Babel.

The question is: does this move serve them well? 

Having now listened to the entire album twice through, this reviewer can honestly say that Babel is an excellent “sophomore” effort that easily stands apart from and above most of its musical peers.  And yet, at the same time, it can also be honestly said that the radio-friendly Babel pales, ever so slightly, in comparison to Sigh No More, much in the way that Nevermind never quite captured the brilliance of Bleach.

Take, for instance, a song such as the stunningly elegant “Awake My Soul” from Sigh No More.  On that album, the song had a home, because Mumford had not yet been branded and marketed as the new face of the West London neo-folk scene.  But on Babel, there is no place for a song like this, because this song never erupts into the now trademarked explosion of banjos, kick drums and aggressive guitar strumming.  So there is no musical counterpart to “Awake my Soul” on this album; and, in the opinion of this reviewer, the album is weaker for it.

Nevertheless, it would be unfair, to say the least, if you were left with the impression that this is anything less than a wonderful collection of songs that are as rich in biblical imagery as anything you are likely to hear on Christian radio.  Having said that, the listener needs to be warned.  The use of biblical imagery does not mean that these songs adopt the sanitized worldview that is so common in most contemporary Christian music.  As one ought to surmise from the title of the album, this is a collection of songs about pride, disorientation, the loss of community and our many failed attempts to reach the divine.  Indeed, the desire to reach God is arguably a central theme of the album, but no more so than the theme of “the pull on my flesh,” which “was just too strong.”[1]

So take, for instance, an early favorite of this reviewer called “Lover’s Eyes.” In it, the narrator of the song finds himself in a sexual affair that has left him numb and scarred.  Where “love was kind, for a time,”[2] he now sees nothing but a “curse” in his lover’s eyes – a curse so powerful, neither drug nor drink can blot it out.  And in the end, he longs only for God to take his sins before He might mercifully take his life.

As was alluded to earlier, these are not songs that will likely find their way on to your nearest Christian radio station.  But if you give them a fair listen, what you may just hear are the cries of the broken Psalmist, crippled by love and lust, and yet longing for something so much more to release him from himself.

This album has been given the parental advisory label for use of language.


[1] Mumford and Sons, “Broken Crown,” on Babel.

[2] Mumford and Sons, “Lover’s Eyes” on Babel.

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17 Responses to Mumford and Sons: Babel

  1. Kyle says:

    I don’t know if I am just burnt-out on their last album, but I think I might actually like Babel more than Sigh No More. Also, their cover of The Boxer is better than Simon and Garfunkel’s original version. There, I said it.

  2. iholdtheline says:

    Do you think that Mumford and Sons are acting as Nirvana/Sex Pistols “awakeners”? I suppose I can see it, but I wouldn’t really say they are coming up with anything new. They seem more like folk revivalists than the standard-bearers of something new and counter-cultural. It’s like they are playing a small part in reminding the music world what song-writing is.
    In that sense, I don’t think Mumford and Sons is alone. While sounding completely different, Florence + the Machine is an original, confident, and very talented artist alongside Arcade Fire, Gotye, Antony and the Johnsons, Elbow, St. Vincent, Bon Iver, Fever Ray, Sufjan Stevens, Josh Garrels, Ladytron, and M83, just to name a few.
    My point is, there are a lot of “image-first” artists out there, but they aren’t necessarily the majority; they’re just the ones with the biggest faces. They are like the art rock to metal, the disco to punk, or the alternative rock to pop. There will always be a dichotomy in the music world at any given time, but it’s kind of difficult to say which group has the leg up. We’ll probably only know until now becomes hindsight, but the music world doesn’t really need saving, it just needs competition between differing ideas. It’s an eternal battle, like yin and yang, Republicans and Democrats, and secularism and religion (although that is far more serious).
    There definitely is a battle raging between the image-firsts and the genuine-firsts (which is a bit harder to pin down), but it’s far more dynamic and interesting than clear-cut and apocalyptic.

    • Two things, sir. First, I would argue that Nirvana was not terribly “new” either. Nirvana was a punk band in the mold of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys, etc… It felt new because arena rock claimed the late 70s, New Wave claimed the early 80s, and hair metal and pop had claimed the late 80s. So Nirvana felt new, but they were merely punk revivalists.

      What made them stand out verses their peers was the massive fame and adulation that was pushed upon them. In that way, I think Mumford is functioning as the new Nirvana. They have skyrocketed to fame in a way that none of the artists you listed have experienced. Even Bon Iver and Arcade Fire have not hit it this big, this fast, on a cultural scale.

      Agree? Disagree?

      • iholdtheline says:

        I agree that Mumford and Sons are, in regards to “hitting it big”, on the same level as Gotye and Florence + the Machine. I just don’t want the other artists fighting against the “image-firsts” to be discredited.

        Believe it or not, Florence + the Machine actually has a larger following than Mumford and Sons. A quick statistical check on facebook and twitter should suffice. It’s bigger, but not by much. She also came around the same time as Mumford. I would also say that Bon Iver has “skyrocketed” to popularity, to an extent. Bon Iver is, now, the quintessential mainstream “hipster” band and he started off humbly. Although, I do agree that Bon Iver hasn’t necessarily hit it “big.” But Gotye has. The popularity he experienced was so quick and great, it’s almost laughable.

        I disagree that Nirvana were “mere” revivalists of punk. They might have had elements of punk music, but they were far more introspective, a bit less “down with the system,” and a bit more artsy than the classic punks. But to say that they were merely punk revivalists? I’d need to be convinced.

        • No arguments on not wanting to exclude other artists fighting against the image-firsts. But I still don’t think that Florence or Gotye have had the cultural impact that Mumford has had. In terms of album sales and media coverage alone, Mumford is clearly the frontrunner, outselling Florence almost 2 to 1.

          As for Nirvana, I can hear what you’re saying … to a degree. They were punk through and through, but they were more melodic than many of the others. So in that sense, they weren’t “pure,” but more of a hybrid. As for being more introspective, I give you that. But as for being a bit less “down with the system” … no chance. The difference was between rage and apathy. Many of the classic punk bands opted for political rage. Cobain and company simply opted to check out and form a counter-community around depression, isolation, and alienation. But in both cases, the classics and Nirvana both saw “the system” as fundamentally broken.

          Legend has it that Michael Stipe (of REM) and Kurt Cobain were in talks to produce a fully accoustic Nirvana album around the time of his suicide. It would have been interesting to see what the politically active Stipe and the introspective alien would have produced.

  3. d4ys3v3n says:

    Definitely agreed here, Mr. Bryant. While I wouldn’t rank Babel as high as Sigh No More, I still love their work.

    Also: your comparison of Mumf’s music to the inner struggles of the Psalmist has given voice to something I’ve been thinking about a long time. The praises and songs found in Scripture clearly portray both the valleys and mountains, the author’s afflictions, fears, and even anger, giving a very real and honest context to the eventual joy he finds in Christ. Mumford and Sons, in my opinion, does much the same. It some ways, it feels far more honest (if that makes much sense) than the many Christian albums filled with a total, unbreaking clarity and confidence.

    • d4ys3v3n says:

      *make that ‘Christ’ a ‘God’ (one in the same though they may be)

    • Perhaps you and I are kindred spirit in this regard. Personally, I’ve never been terribly drawn to the world of contemporary Christian music. To me, much of it feels as if its trying to gloss over the evil that exists (both in the world and in our own hearts), in favor of offering a “safe” alternative to “secular” music.

      Back before I became a Christian, I used to listen to a lot of punk music (e.g. Sex Pistols, Ramones, Dead Kennedys, The Dead Milkmen, Velvet Underground, etc…) because they were angry with the systems of the world. You never would have known it, as I was far too shy to ever publicly adopt a punk persona. But that was my playlist when I went home. Something about the way these bands saw the systems of this world just resonated with me. So when I became a Christian and really started listening to Christian music, nothing clicked. Here we had the answer to the problems of justice in this world, and we weren’t saying anything about it. We were just singing happy tunes.

      So I found myself looking elsewhere. I drifted towards the music of Bob Dylan (e.g. Saved, Blood on the Tracks, etc…), Bruce Coburn, Leslie/Sam Philips, and ultimately, U2. These were Christians that were signing not only about the light, but about the things that the light reveals. So they put their own lives on display, ugly warts and all. And I got that. It meant something to me.

      Having said all that, I have found some “Christian” music that I really do appreciate. I love the David Crowder Band and I love Rich Mullins. So please don’t hear me wrong. I’m not trying to tear Christian music down. I’m just saying that much of it never clicked with me because it didn’t address the concerns I had when I first became a believer and was really digging into music.

      • Sky Blue says:

        Bob Dylan…a Christian? No.

        http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/friend-devil

        and

        And as for most, if not all, of the other musicians you discuss – I think the last part of this scripture applies…

        1 Thessalonians 5:21-22
        But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.

        • That’s certainly an interesting clip, and one that I won’t debate. If you noticed, when I listed Dylan, I listed certain albums after his name. As anyone who has followed Bob well knows, he went through a time in the early 80s when he wrote explicitly Christian music. After that … things seemed to change both musically and personally.

          • Sky Blue says:

            I know the theme of your blog is: From the Sacred to the Vulgar … and Back.

            Just a gentle hope that you don’t get stuck in the middle. Peace.

          • If you would be so kind as to turn that “gentle hope” into a prayer, I would be grateful. For the call to be in the world, but not of it, is one of the trickiest balancing acts that any Christian faces, myself included.

            Out of curiosity, I can’t think that someone just happens to have a clip of Bob Dylan handy. Your posting it seems to suggest a familiarity with the man and his music. Were you a fan at one point in time? And if so, how do you see his 80s albums at this point in time? Do you see them as Christian, not Christian? I’m honestly curious.

  4. popesicle says:

    You like Bleach more than Nevermind? I mean, I can’t really judge. I’ve never really listened to it, but Nevermind is just so good…

    Apparently, I have two new albums to check out, Babel and Bleach!

    • Do I like Bleach more than Nevermind …? In some ways, yes. Bleach feels more like Nirvana being Nirvana. Nevermind was a studio-crafted take on Nirvana, meant to introduce them to a wider audience. So certain songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were slowed down and popified (hows that for a new word?) to make them more palatable. If you ever heard them in concert, that song sounded nothing like it did on the record. If you want to hear it as they played it, check out the live recording From the Muddy Banks of Wishkah. Listen to “Teen Spirit” there and then listen to it on Nevermind. You’ll get what I’m saying. Nevermind took Nirvana and recrafted them for the masses. So Nevermind has all the popular songs, but it lacks a certain angst that was better represented on Bleach.

      As for Babel, it is, in my opinion, a popified (there’s that word again) version of Mumford. It’s still the same Mumford you know. But it takes all their trademarks and insists that they be present in every song. So some of the odder material from Sigh No More is missing, and it makes Babel a slightly lesser work.

      P.S. Another great example from Nirvana’s catalog is the song “Polly.” Listen to Muddy Banks version and then listen to the studio version. It’s night and day.

  5. Sky Blue says:

    Sorry it’s taken me awhile to get back. Regarding Bob Dylan, I never followed his work specifically, was never a fan. But I happened to be aware of his statement in the interview and it was easy to find it.

    According to Bob Dylan’s own words
    …he made his deal “with the chief commander…in this earth and in the world we can’t see”
    …very early in his career “I made a bargain with it a long time ago”
    …he also says that “I’m holding up my end ” until now.

    Based on his own confession, we can be assured that whatever works he has produced that are characterized as “Christian”, are fraudulent and deceptive.

    No man can serve two masters. Now we know which one he has been serving all along.

    There are a lot of deceivers out there, and I’m currently recovering from several myself.

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