Mumford & Sons became one of Britain’s greatest exports seemingly overnight. Conquering the American roots market without a second thought, it’s hard to imagine that the Grammy nominated stars were organizing low key folk nights with Laura Marling just five years ago. 2009’s Sigh No More still stands as a remarkable accomplishment:, a formulaic record full of dramatic rises and falls perfected in the live arena, and transformed into a pristine studio product.
Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs is once again at the helm for another collection of rousing folk anthems. This time the slick pop trappings have been removed as Mumford & Sons embrace blunt force trauma. Earnest and simplistic in the extreme, Marcus Mumford spends the best part of an hour cowering in the darkness, tightly clinging to his lover’s hand, and roaring at the harsh and unforgiving world that surrounds him. It’s contrived and heavy handed in the extreme, and despite some genuine moments of reflective solace (“Ghost That We Knew”), Babel grinds the listener down. Continuously bellowing basic, and eerily repetitive, postcard ready sentiments as the band savage their fiddles with demented glee. Using a sledgehammer to crack a heartfelt nut, Babel sees one grandstanding crescendo follow another, and then another, and then another.
Destined to infuriate and inspire in equal measure, Babel is the kind of album that will be greeted as a cherished emotional centrepiece by some, and like Chinese water torture by others. Dragged out over 15-tracks Marcus Mumford can sound resilient and occasionally triumphant for so long, gradually, as he strives for earnest perseverance he starts to come across as comical bore. There are only so many times a man can grit his teeth and expect sympathy without offering up any kind of incisive lyrical content or masterfully orchestrated soundscapes. It gets to the point where the Dylan aping understatement of “Reminder” serves as welcome reprieve from the oncoming storm of theatrical slow builds.
Babel is the work of band who know their audience and understand their world conquering strengths, and are intent on industriously milking them for all their worth. A rabble-rousing anthem like “Broken Crown” should not be underestimated, but its simple appeal shouldn’t be overused either. Ultimately Babel, undermines its own considerable assets by grinding them, and the listener, into the sweat stained dust. David Hayter