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.”
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,” 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.