They conquered the UK and went double platinum in America; the sequel to Sigh No More will no doubt grab hearts and headlines the world over, but it's not as relentlessly universal as it aspires to be....
Released 24/09/12, Island Records
Mumford & Sons’ new album is called Babel. Album titles are interesting. What are these 12 songs collectively known as? In this case Babel, which is likely a reference to the Tower of Babel -a Hebrew myth which describes a tower, built after the great biblical flood, which held a people of singular, universal language. This story is somewhat analogous with this band’s general bearing, which is one of generalisms, and universality. They aspire to no less than the Tower of Babel in their recorded output, and want their music to communicate with everyone, so far as this is possible.
As has been said in other ways, if you attempt to communicate with everyone you run at least the risk of communicating with no-one. But, I’m in danger of running away with inferences from the album’s title. How does it actually go, with Babel? The album’s title-opener features impressively raw, passionate singing. The song gets through with its structure and melodies without hesitating. No malingering choruses, or surplus verses to clutter the picture. In and out, straight to the point. What is the point? It sounds like the classic call-to-arms opener many acts strive for on second albums, but does the album answer it’s own call?
Well, it doesn’t so much as answer the call as repeat it to a self-negating nadir. The problem is that Marcus Mumford sounds like a more self-assured Michael Stipe. The assurance comes from the fact that Mr. Mumford relates stories; his songs are folkish; storyfied. They tell, but indirectly. There’s just enough removal of the intimate and personal for anyone else to slot their personality into place, which Stipe was capable of doing (‘Everybody Hurts’, after all), but he was also capable of a more characterful and individual style. The non-specific nature of these stories make you feel as though Mumford is always addressing someone just over your shoulder; the point is it could be anyone. The songs are about anyone, and therefore no-one in particular.
The kind of imagery that Mr. Mumford utilises invites the listener to make this judgement call pretty early on. ‘Broken Crown’ opens with “Touch my mouth and hold my tongue, I’ll never be your chosen one” this line is a blind-alley, leading nowhere with scarce illumination to be found. Perhaps the biggest problem is not the words themselves, but the way in which they are delivered. You might be able to get away with lines like these (they are by no means to worst ever penned), but to sing them with this degree of solemnity, the solemnity of a more self-assured Michael Stipe, only serves to highlight their shortcomings.
Looking round for redeeming qualities, none can be found in other areas of songcraft. In this collection of untalented melodies, there’s a kind of monochrome melancholy which, by virtue of repetition, is rendered totally feeble by the record’s end. Even the record’s middle is ropey, lumpen with a series of songs lasting over five minutes each, which do nothing to ingratiate themselves during their stays. Nor can any grand claims be made for the arrangements here. The big idea seems to amount to strummed chords with banjo finger picking on every song. On most of the songs Mr. Mumford also raises his voice to a shout, usually towards the end. You could say the effect is akin to pissing in the wind, if you were in unkind form.
So we return to the lyrics: “You saw my pain, washed out in the rain.” (‘Ghosts That We Knew’.) Now, you simply mustn’t rhyme pain with rain. It’s a cardinal cliché. When a songwriter writes almost exclusively in terms of grandiose, arm-locked singalong sadness (for example) they run the risk of merely evoking sadness in the listener. Except that the feeling imparted by static pieces like ‘Lover’s Eyes” is more a kind of ennui; listless, useless. As an album, Babel is vinegarless.
There’s a line in the stupendously dull but appropriately titled “Hopeless Wanderer” which goes “I’ll remember the words you said” -clearly an empty line roped in for the sake of a rhyme, but it actually serves to make a wider point about this kind of music. It’s always hinting at insight, hinting at heartache and the big strange sadness of the world, without ever giving details, or getting close to it. The line might be “I’ll remember the words you said” but Mr Mumford never tells us what those words were. Until he does, the Tower of Babel will remain aloof to him.
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