In their short career Mumford and Sons have inevitably adopted the quality of marmite: charged by the phenomenal success of their debut album Sigh No More, infamous appearances at renowned and local festivals, a star struck BRIT performance in 2011 and gossip surrounding their personal lives, they’ve quickly become the all-singing, all-strumming barbershop poster boys of the 21st Century. Overwhelmed by wannabe croakers, new music fans love to hate the success of the trendsetters. Mainstream listeners, on the other hand, have hailed the Sons a glistening example of accessible contemporary folk.
So who’s right? The sophomore album from the tweet-clad wonders of Island Records settles the argument – Babel is at once infuriatingly repetitive and undeniably recognisable. On formation the four-piece found their sound as quickly as they donned working class clothes. They maximise on both here, churning out ‘classic’ Mumford and Sons like their royalty cheques depend on it, adorned by images of the band sat on ponies, eating two-bob apples. At points Mumford’s whisky sneer bellows its limitation and becomes a rasp; he sounds like he needs a good cough on the eponymous opener. The twiddle and fiddle of “Roll Away Your Stone” looms large, dominating nearly every song between the seven-strum of “Little Lion Man”. Producer Markus Dravs even remembers to include the bells and whistles of their live performances by way of ‘impromptu’ whoops and handclaps.
All of this would boast a winning concoction, at least in terms of airtime, if it weren’t for an unprecedented lack of salt. It seems cramming the stereotypical into their music leaves no room for decent pop songs, and Babel plays as a textbook example of the noises to make if you want to sound like Mumford and Sons. The path destroys the most likable quality of the band – their knack for penning a tune – and results in a nightmarish Step by Step guide for future folk hopefuls everywhere, as though there’s not enough of them already. It also highlights how Mumford and Sons are different from peers such as Marling and Flynn, in that theirs is a less thoughtful and cohesive direction; the lyrics here are a poor man’s attempt at Little Boy Lost. The ironic conclusion is that Babel is the saturation of a saturated scene; a pummelling of the one idea Mumford can and has put into action.
Fortunately for the ardent fan, in denial of their failure, there is some hope in the form of lead track “Lover of the Light”. Used by the band’s management in a preview of the four men playing some stadium in the Deep South, it seems all involved are aware this is the song that Babel will be known for. Elsewhere “Reminder” and “Broken Crown” have their moments, but neither is even remotely original.
Babel certainly continues the Mumford and Sons tradition of making honky tonk twanging accessible to many, but unlike Sigh No More there’s no charming lick of harmony and independence from the masses to distinguish the record from every other on the market. In such a crucial point of their career, during a time when thanks to their own efforts there’s a lot of competition, you have to ask whether Mumford and Sons have got what it takes to stick around. Another question – and one that only their next record can answer.