It’s no great surprise that Mumford and Sons cleave so closely to the sound of their debut album on this follow up. 2009’s Sigh No More confounded many by selling five million copies, in the process elevating these posh West Londoners into some kind of beacon of authenticity amid a wasteland of plastic pop.
The fact that Mumford and Sons were always a bunch of metrosexuals playing at being farm hands from a Hardy novel was no barrier to global success. In fact, their carefully upholstered vintage look and sound is very appealing to people who prefer their “real” music to be more like a comfy cashmere v-neck than an Aran sweater knitted from porridge.
So risks have not being taken with Babel. It’s bigger, it’s beefier, it’s bolder and it wears its bleeding heart on its artfully-ruffled sleeve. That biblical title underscores that Marcus Mumford and chums are god-fearing types and their songs are consumed with near-religious experience and epiphany. Mumford wrestles with his faith like a metaphysical poet or maybe he’s just a tad miffed at the difficulty in getting a decent Wi-Fi connection on the tour bus.
Like U2 before them, this spirituality may go some way to explaining Mumford’s huge global success and why they are utterly out of step with rock music’s usual and more mortal concerns. These songs, written and demoed in Nashville, London and the rural tranquil of Somerset, have been road tested for the past 18 months and they are well crafted and polished to a gleaming faux rustic shine. But this is turbocharged designer folk lacking any grit, earthiness or ragged glory.
Mumford, former boyfriend of the excellent Laura Marling and now married to indie darling Carey Mulligan, certainly knows his audience. He amps up the old world gallantry and troubadour romance, and In the same way that Noel Gallagher was light fingered with the Beatles' back catalogue, Mumford is similarly indebted to other people’s work. He freely admits that he has lifted lines from Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning novel Wolf Hall for Babel, and previously he was also fond of drinking deeply from the literary font of the bible and Shakespeare. By the sounds of some of Babel’s more crusty lines, he may even have a copy of a Catherine Cookson novel lying around too.
And in case you doubt Mumford’s chest-beating fervour he spits out the f*** word a few times just to prove that he’s mighty, mighty angry. Mostly with himself mind.
With producer Marcus Dravs, the man who helped give Arcade Fire their kinetic power and Coldplay their Technicolor sweep, Mumford and Sons dial up the bombast to unbearable levels on Babel. It is also difficult to tell the songs apart as they build from trembling confessionals and work themselves into crescendos of frenzied stomping, strumming and Mumford’s stentorian wail. And always, always with that banjo either fidgeting away in the background or blasting full in your face.
The banjo is a beautiful instrument and it has made many great appearances outside its normal environment but here it will have you longing wistfully for some respite, perhaps in the form of that famous scene from Deliverance.
50 minutes of this designer folk at full tilt really is a draining experience. Unlike the mighty Waterboys, Mumford and Sons have managed to make the Big Music sound rather small