Mumford and Sons – Babel

Mumford and Sons have followed the wildly successful Sigh No More with an album of wet-blanket emoting and obligatory banjo, writes DOUG WALLEN.

Setting aside the murderous flogging given to the poor banjo all over this album, that’s not actually the deal-breaker for me. No, it’s Mumford & Sons’ combination of wet-blanket emoting with the worst kind of hollow platitudes and diluted themes of good and evil, darkness and light, ghosts and sins. As musically upbeat as these guys could be on Sigh No More, Marcus Mumford goes in for such bitter whinging on Babel that it consumes the thing. And let me tell you: it’s a drag.

He’s not alone in this game, of course. Besides the legions of followers donning old-time duds and printing banjo tabs to amass a vast milquetoast progeny, the song ‘Lover of the Light’ isn’t too far from Glen Hansard of The Swell Season: broken-voiced, open-wound folk catharsis. But while Hansard has his cringe-worthy moments from time to time, his songwriting is much sharper and more direct than Mumford’s. It seems forged from hard-earned personal experience rather than dependent on learnt-by-rote brooding that stays safely universal.

For all the tortured bleeding-out done here, Mumford & Sons mostly remain as mannered and meek as ever. On the angst-ridden ‘Broken Crown’ (actual lyric: “I’ll never wear your broken crown”), when there’s nowhere else to go from that odd faux-Metallica growl, they simply add rising strings. Often, actually, the arrangements and those resounding builds swoop in to try and pluck at our heartstrings, but it’s all so repetitive and by-the-numbers. While there’s renewed urgency in the emo hoedown ‘Whispers in the Dark’, it’s still an emo hoedown.

“For all the tortured bleeding-out done here, Mumford & Sons mostly remain as mannered and meek as ever.”

‘Hopeless Wanderer’ at least gets frenetic at the end, making you hope that maybe a necktie was loosened or even maybe a shoe scuffed a bit in the process. To be fair, though, half of this record is endurable as pure MOR froth, and the two-minute devotional ‘Reminder’ would once have capped a million cassette mixtapes, by dint of both brevity and fawning sentiment: “Without her I’m lost.”

It’s not the surface that irritates me so much here – the sound of traditional English folk-dancers gone rebelliously secular – but the lack of imagination underneath. Mumford & Sons have lucked into a global following, and all they can do with it is bellyache about the usual dead-ends of romantic dependence and reach yet again for that damned banjo.