Mumford & Sons - Babel
Record Label: Island, Glassnote
Release Date: September 25, 2012
It's pretty much official at this point that Mumford & Sons are the biggest band since... well, since The Beatles.
Last week saw Marcus et al. score six songs in the Billboard Hot 100 in a single week, the most by a band since the Fab Four pulled off the same feat in 1963. Granted, when they did it, streaming and iTunes and all that jazz didn't exist. But the point remains: Mumford & Sons are wildly popular. I don't really know anyone that doesn't at least like the band, and set the disproportionately high number of twentysomething white people that I know. Attend a live show, as I did over the summer, and you get the sense that Mumford is doing something that speaks to and transcends numerous demographics, race, age, whatever be damned. The hype is palpable; enter a record store and you can cut it with a knife. And the band lives up to it, that's the thing.
The reason for the hoopla and the love is that M&S sing about real shit. God and love and fear and emotions and all that Vampire Diaries crap. I am tired of listening to fan-made YouTube dubstep remixes of post-ironic joke rap songs. At what point did the consensus shift away from the real? From earnestness? Honesty? Wood & wires? Don't get me wrong, I dig Skrillex as much as the next teenybopper with Beats Studios around his neck. But at some point, I want music to lift me, make me stomp my feet, raise my hands up in the air and wave 'em around like I just don't care, scream the lyrics along, give me goosebumps, make me cry. Babel is that kind of music from pressing play to pressing play again.
So I am happy that Mumford & Sons are doing well, because it means that people still care about shit, at the end of the day. That there are millions of people who want eschew the sneer and the flipped bird that Pitchfork and its ilk offer in lieu of good-ol'-fashioned banjo pickin'. Gawd bless!
The opening triumvirate of "Babel," "Whispers in the Dark," and the lead single "I Will Wait," is a tour-de-force. Marcus Mumford's voice is different. Any subtlety or nuance it once had is thrown to the wind (no doubt lost to night after night of balls-out touring), and in its place, virtually every line is screamed or growled (think of a whole CD of Dave Matthews at his most guttural, i.e. "Don't Drink The Water" and "Halloween," and you've got the right idea). This is a remarkably effective technique. It's like Mumford is a machine for delivering oomph. Or maybe a human oomph IV, pumping away into your pumping fist. Such urgency is brought to great lines like "Press my nose up to the glass around your heart," and the band even flirts successfully with conventional rock riffery on "Whispers," which starts with a decidedly stellar faux-Strokes lick. Love it.
The highlight of the album is "Lover of the Light." This isn't a typical Mumford song in that the allegorical and/or biblical content is kept to a minimum; simply put, it's a straight-up love song. Starting quiet on piano and ending in a full-on, horns-and-trumpets crescendo, "Lover" is classic Mumford, and at the same time, not. All the elements are there: big instrumentation building on a Celtic-folk feel, furious banjo and bass, and that amazing realization that they rock this hard on acoustic guitars. And yet the feel is bigger: not any less Simon & Garfunkle, but a ton more Coldplay (cue the air piano outbreak). This is arena rock, tried and true, as much as Who's Next or Frampton Comes Alive ever were, tailored to the band as it is on stage, but making every bit as much sense on the record.
The album is not perfect and it does that inevitable folk-album trail-off-into-slow-songs thingy. Another weak point is "Broken Crown," which plays out like a bizarre amalgam of songs from Sigh No More: the verse from "I Gave You All" stapled onto the chorus from "Thistle & Weeds," with "Little Lion Man"'s tendency to play it fast and loose with the f-word thrown in for good measure. If one hater's messageboard maxim applies, my money's on "This isn't very original." But Babel weathers these hiccups. The truth is that this band half-rocking is pretty much other bands at full-octane, pyrotechnical tilt. Fleet Foxes, for example, have always left a wishy-washy taste in my mouth, primarily because They're not Mumford! in the same adamant way that Oatmeal Crisp is not oatmeal! 95% of this record is 100% awesome, and that's good enough for me. Every record has a bump: even the otherwise-flawless Deja Entendu has that solo in "Good To Know" with the hook lifted straight outta "Hotel California." Nobody's original. Better to rip yourself off than mine The Clash's Sandanista! for previously-unexploited nuggets. (You heard me, post-Dookie Green Day. Scratch that, PRE-Dookie Green Day.)
The record's end is also the place where the real gems hide. The Neutral-Milk-on-steroids strumming of "Hopeless Wanderer" and the anthemic strains of "Below My Feet" and "Not With Haste." Those lucky enough to have picked up the deluxe edition will also be treated to three bonus tracks that ought to have been just tracks. "For Those Below" is something legitimately different, Mumford doing brit-pop in the vein of The Zombies or The La's. "The Boxer" is a gang-vocal-laden cover of the Simon & Garfunkle classic, markedly improved by the absence of that dated whipcrack sound effect, and featuring Paul Simon himself. Finally, "Where Are You Now" brings on the sun-drenched country harmonies and reminds me a wee bit of Johnny Cash (never a bad thing).
So that's it then. An album of sure-to-be live favorites and heartwarming standards in the making, Babel is amazing. It's the kind of music you want to hear. Basically, it's carved in stone that anyone who doesn't think this is a good album, or that the band has succumbed to sophomore slump, needs to give their head a serious shake. There is fuck all sophomoric about this effort, so what's a fanboy to do but gush?
I've never been a fan, but I respect the artistry that these guys bring to the table. The problem is this, when you walk into a Hot Topic the last record you expect to see is this one...the industry constantly baffles me. Constantly annoyed with the larger industry's attempts at force feeding the masses these records