When Mumford & Sons released their single “I Will Wait” — aptly named for fans who struggled through a three-year musical dry spell from the group — in early August, they coupled it with a YouTube video showing a random street passing under the camera’s eye. According to credible sources such as well-liked YouTube comments, the rumor is the clip answered critics’ requests that the band “cover new ground.” This tongue-in-cheek response wittily announced that more of the same should be expected from the group’s latest album Babel, and despite some critics’ lamentations, this isn’t a bad thing.
The folk-rock band from London has always had an easily recognizable sound: strumming banjos and varied tempos coupled with lead singer Marcus Mumford’s gravely twang. After a few chords from the title track’s opening measures, my head was nodding, both to the beat and in affirmation that yes, Mumford & Sons is back. I couldn’t help but smile at Marcus’ joyous vocalizations between the bridge and the second verse. “Babel” is a fan-pleasing opener, full of tones reminiscent of previous albums.
Another track, “Hopeless Wanderer,” starts with soft, sweet piano and some folksy harmony. But about a minute and a half in, the strings come out of nowhere, and the song goes crazy, building to a second, bigger crescendo three-quarters of the way into the track.
Taken individually, the songs on the album offer insightful lyrics and creative sound work, especially when compared to most top-40 hits. The problem with many of today’s individualistic, trend-setting artists is they all sound the same — but not so for Mumford & Sons, who have always managed to remain distinct.
When viewed as a whole, though, the melodies on the album tend to run together. The group loses the listener after “I Will Wait,” and by the time “Lover of the Light” and “Hopeless Wanderer” come around, it’s almost to pick things back up again — which is a real shame, because there’s some great stuff in there if the listener can fight the impulse to zone out halfway through the album.
With a title like Babel, the album is bound to carry some religious undertones, and although the group has claimed the songs are more about social than religious issues, Christian ideas and values are reflected in some of the pieces. In “Below My Feet,” a prayer-like piece, the narrator reasons: “When I was told by Jesus all was well / So all must be well.” The religious metaphors and references, however, enhance rather than suffocate the lyrics.
With Babel, Mumford & Sons have created a beautiful album by sticking to their roots and reinforcing and improving upon what worked well the first time around. As closing track “Not with Haste” announces, perhaps again in response to their critics: “This ain’t no sham / I am what I am.”