Mumford And Sons - Babel | Album Review | By Volume

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Mumford And Sons


Let’s get inspirational.

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Author: on September 29, 2012
Island Records
September 21, 2012

I tend not to care much for album reviews any more unless I think the artist is particularly deserving of praise, so it seems that a negative review of the new Mumford & Sons should be a waste of time. It is – and that’s partly my motivation for writing it. What is deeply irksome about Mumford & Sons is that any sort of criticism is bound to find a spritely fan accusing you of hating them for their popularity. There’s no use getting into an argument at that point, even if part of your criticism is that you wish the bands that Mumford imitate shared that appreciation. While this introduction may seem somewhat curmudgeonly and vindictive, rallying against something the band themselves can do nothing about, I find the difficulty of criticism an oddly significant parallel. Because, I do genuinely struggle to justify what made me hate Sigh No More so much more than junk like Noah and the Whale or any other crappy sentimental indie band. For a long time I rested on the ill-advised authenticity bandwagon: these guys weren’t real, man. I quickly overcame that hurdle because, to the band’s credit, they’ve always been up front about it being a show: the old-timey get-ups, the banjo, the theatricality of the live shows. But herein lies the problem, after all.

There is absolutely nothing to this band, or to this album. Everything is so light you could pop it with a pin — an airy bubble floating on the hype of Sigh No More’s singles. To be fair, it’s easy to see the appeal of songs like “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” in isolation. You’re driving along and suddenly a song comes on the radio, and hey, wait a minute, is that a banjo? Oooh, it’s all soft and then it’s really loud at the end! I feel so inspired! To anyone half paying attention, including myself, the band certainly seem to possess a jolt of life. And maybe you like the cut of their jib, and you go out and buy the album and put it on and have the same moment you had in that car listening to “Little Lion Man” – over and over and over again. Well, you’re about to have that moment over and over and over again, again: here is Babel in all of its grandiose tedium.

Before you start assuming that I didn’t even give Babel a chance, I admit that, whether it was their cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” or whatever, something made me think this album was going to be a massive improvement on the debut. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I was far from right. There does seem to be some progress, at least in terms of variety – but that isn’t saying much when your reference point is Sigh No More. All of the ingredients that made that record such a laughing mess are still here. We can start with the lyrics. No doubt YouTube will be flooded with praise for Mumford’s “inspirational” lyrics, but seriously? “Cuz I know my weakness, know my voice, so now I believe in grace and choice / And I know perhaps my heart is farce, but I’ll be born without a mask,” croaks Mumford. And I’m left scratching my head about: a), trying to rhyme farce and mask; b), wondering what the hell this has to do with the rest of the song; and c), pondering that, if you were so sure about knowing your weakness and your voice, how could you possibly know that your heart may be farce? And for that matter, if you’re going to invoke the Babel allusion, be aware that in saying “I’m gonna tear, tear them down” in reference to the “walls” of your town, you are in fact posturing as God. Of course, that fits into this rhetoric of being the innocent lover scorned by the harsh realities of the world. And by “harsh realities”, I mean “platitudes”.

But really, can I argue that poor lyrics mean poor songs? No, I cannot. But Mumford & Sons fail to compensate for these lyrical headaches with anything remotely approaching interesting songwriting. Every crescendo, yell, scream, horn line, banjo part – you’ve heard it before. In fact, if you go to the previous song on the record, you’ll remember where. Someone already dragged the dead horse away, and now they’re just beating the ground where it used to lie. What we’re left with is a muddle of platitudes and mediocre melodies thumped into us over and over again. “I Will Wait” was actually promising at first listen, just as most Mumford & Sons singles are, but any more attentive experience quickly reveals that same arpeggio banjo line, yelling proclamation of a chorus, loud-soft dynamics, and horns, resembling any of their other “epic” moments of “inspirational” music posturing as sincere revelation. These songs are anything but sincere; they are entirely manufactured by combing YouTube comments to find which tropes will inspire the largest number of late-teenage fans to tattoo their lyrics alongside “Carpe Diem,” “Dream new Dreams,” or “So watch the world tear us apart / A stoic mind and bleeding heart / You never see my bleeding heart” (guess which one is the Mumford lyric!). In Mumford’s world we exist as one identifiable thing and the rest of the world actually cares enough about your particular fling to tear you apart. That’s from the token “contemplative” quiet track “Reminder”, with a vocal line so flimsy and insubstantial it’s immediately forgotten once “contemplation time” has stayed its welcome, which, apparently, lasts about two minutes. Enough quiet time, let’s get inspirational.

And yet, perhaps I’m just being pretentious and curmudgeonly — I guess it doesn’t really matter if other people like this band, that’s their prerogative, right? Plus this music is just harmless, after all. But as our own Adam Knott asked, is harmless music worth ignoring? In any case, I would argue that this isn’t harmless at all. Harmless is a dance track that has a fun beat, or a pop song with a great hook that is ultimately about nothing. LMFAO are a great example; I don’t particularly like them, but they are fun in the atmosphere they aim for, and so there’s no way I could legitimately hate them. Mumford & Sons, however, feign something substantial. They want you to feel inspired (tired of me using that word yet? Wait until you hear Babel) but it is all, in the end, machinery.

They pick and choose elements that make other bands and performers so great and strip these parts of anything beside a shallow gimmick value. I want those other bands to be popular. A band like Fleet Foxes have the ability to colour their songs, like, say, “Happiness Blues,” with the use of the full band as more than simply another notch on the volume bar. Mumford’s “Happiness Blues” would take the first half of that song and play it for the rest of the 5 minute duration, adding strings, horns, banjos, drums, bass, and guitars to bring the song to nauseating heights. That’s Babel. As Swans so devastatingly proved earlier this year, repetition ad nauseum can be an effective tool if there’s an idea behind it — for The Seer the idea is menace, forcing the listener to feel totally uncomfortable. The repetition on Babel is not for effect. It is because, at their core, this band simply lack ideas.

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