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Banjos, Brits and the Bible in Babel

Babel Mumford & Son’s sophomore album, is easily one of this year’s most anticipated releases. The twelve-track record came together over the past three years as the band’s fame skyrocketed through music festivals and passionate sold-out stadium concerts, not to mention a lucky Grammy telecast appearance with Bob Dylan. The album debuted at number one on the US and UK’s top charts and sold well over half-a-million albums in the first week alone. This British quartet, however, is not your typical four-cord alternative rock band.

This bluegrass inspired indie rock band has deep roots in Celtic ballads and folk revivalism—and it’s audible (is that music terminology? If not, it sounds weird). The vest wearing, foot-stomping four (band members are unrelated) make generous use out of the mandolin, banjo, dobro, string bass and resonator guitar. This earthy band eventually strummed their way into the top charts in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand with their first album Sigh No More that debuted in 2009.

Songwriter and son of a preacher-man, Marcus Mumford borrows allusions from Shakespeare and Steinbeck while  scattering biblical allusions. Their first album’s song “Timshel” is of course an allusion to the Hebrew bible’s origin of sin and Adam’s fall, while “Whispers in the Dark” of their latest album contains illusions to later stories. “Spare my sins for the ark, I was too slow to depart / I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud, I’ve set out to serve the Lord,” clearly references the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8. Indeed, the album’s title alludes to the perplexities of language. The imagery of Genesis 11 is woven into an analogy of tearing down the walls of a love.

Despite various biblical allusions, Babel is spiritual, not religious. It’s about soul searching within the dense knots of relationships, risk-taking, personal fulfillment, and faithfulness. There are deep existential fissures running through this album, a theme that compliments lead singer Marcus Mumford’s grainy vocals. “Reminder” is about the only light track in the album and comes as a thankful relief from the violent volume of the full brass band and the boosted bass buildups of many other songs.

Intensity notwithstanding, the band’s musicianship in Babel is a testament to years of road-testing songs; the band performed songs as they were writing them. The string arrangement of “Broken Crown” is a testament to the emotional pull of picked strings. The gorgeous four-part harmony in “I Will Wait” raises goose bumps. At times, the music offers a transcendental lift, a soul elevating punch of acoustic guitar or four-part harmony. Then darker vibes lead the album to a colder, more somber place.

But the same was true of their last album, “Sigh No More.”

Babel’s full-bodied instrumentation never seems to lift the album away from standard M & S formula. The banjo is hollering. The base is thumping. Marcus Munford lets out a yelp. For some, it’s tried and true. For others, it’s a big disappointment.

M & S have rehashed familiar themes sung to the same cords—even the same riffs—producing the same sound. There are no “stories” in these songs, unlike their bluegrass counterparts. The angst now seems formulaic: “You saw my pain washed out in the rain” or “I tried so hard to live in the truth,” and can get burdensome because it lacks even the slightest narrative spine. The self-affirming existentialism can quickly become stale:“I believe in faith and choice” while the cryptic poetics can become hollow: “I know that perhaps my heart is farce but I know that I'll be born without a mask.” M & S “Babel” regurgitates the same generic tropes and launches into the same triumphal choruses.

Babel isn’t a failure. It just represents a lack of maturation. There’s very little creativity in the album, and there are no surprises. Babel simply presents more of the same content. That the second album would have a minor impact was predictable and perhaps inevitable. People turned to M & S for their refreshing sound. After all, who would have thought a British band could bang away at the banjo? But the bar was set too high and the band fell short. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another three years for M & S to produce their next album.