Babel, Mumford & Sons’ second album, was released on September 25. You can find it on iTunes and Spotify, to name a few sources.
In listening to this album, I couldn’t help but compare it to Sigh No More, a triumph which Babel doesn’t quite equal. Mumford & Sons, thankfully, haven’t changed the formula which worked so well on their first album; the trouble is, they fail to execute as well here as they did there, and so unfavorable comparisons are 99 percent of the thoughts that come to a listener’s mind. At least, they were for me.
On Sigh, the songs fell into a pattern, so much so that they all felt like variations on a theme. Which, by the way, is something I love for an album to do. The theme, to keep going with my metaphor, was something like “folksy and passionate.” The instruments Mumford & Sons use, and the timbres they eke from them, all feel time-worn and rich like only the best folk sounds do.
Banjoes plucked as often as strummed, accordions sustaining chords, acoustic guitars as well as basses, horns — and I do mean horns, because to call them trumpets would be a disservice — these are the sounds of some far-off mountain town, or some old west saloon. (This hasn’t changed on Babel, and I hope it never does.) That’s where the folksy part of Sigh’s theme came from; the passionate came from the music itself. Excepting a few, each song began relatively soft, crescendoed, spun out into more complex plucking and strumming, crescendoed again, and, at the peak of the musical frenzy, subsided for a relatively hushed finale.
This may make the album sound repetitive, but it isn’t; the imaginative lyrics and chord progressions were distinct and diverse on each song. It was, very nearly, a perfect album, and I’d hoped that Mumford & Sons would find whatever little polish they were missing on their second album.
Instead, the second album makes the first album sound like a second album.The start-slow-then-rise formula has been abandoned. There are loud songs that stay loud, and soft songs that stay soft — really, only one of the latter, and it’s teasingly short. Now, that’s a slight exaggeration, as there are moments of dynamic contrast in most songs, but blink and you’ll miss them. Well…um…whatever the auditory equivalent of blinking is.
And that isn’t the main problem. The main problem is a toss-up between the lackluster melodies, and the repetitive nature of the songs. Before I explain what I mean, let me put in a caveat: I am holding this album to the standard of Sigh No More. Compared to most other recent albums, this album looks a lot better. Then again, compared to most older albums, most recent albums can’t hold a candle, so maybe I’m wasting my breath with that caveat.
So, as for “lackluster melodies,” what I mean is this: the melodies on Babel just don’t move me the way those on Sigh did. I can’t put a finger on why. I imagine that if I could, I’d be writing songs myself. But I can guarantee that if you listen to both albums, as I have, you’ll feel an emotional tug from every song on Sigh, and few if any on Babel.
But for that, I might not have noticed the repetitiveness of the songs. Despite the high-speed plucking of strings, the songs seem to move slowly — the chords just don’t change often. And more than that, the songs seem to employ short patterns of three or four chords, repeated in sequence over and over again, and nothing else. Even without truly heart-wrenching melodic pull, I could have likely enjoyed the technique, timbre, lyrics, and the like if Mumford’s typically inventive and nigh-improvisational fervor were present. Alas, they aren’t.
Yet, even saying all that, this is a good album. It’s better than that — it’s almost a great album, because as I just mentioned, the technique etc. of Mumford & Sons is amazing.
The problem is, chops alone aren’t enough to make mediocre songs great. But the silver lining is,they’re enough to make them good.
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