Mumford & Sons are a powerful live band. They could turn a packed venue – arena sized or clubs- into a folk revivalist party; turning doubters to believers. Combine incredibly talented and handsome-looking multi-instrumentalists Brits in their ‘30s inspired attire with the energy of thousands-over strong crowd singing along to the rollicking-goodness of crowd favorites like “Little Lion Man” and “Winter Winds,” the truth is at one point you would feel somewhat alive and belong.
Since the release of their debut Sigh No More, the band has been working hard touring for over more than two years, conquering grounds and capturing hearts; performing alongside Bob Dylan at the Grammys, all while achieving double platinum in the States alone. So when the band’s much-awaited follow up came into picture, many would expect something beyond folk-revival – perhaps a record that would redefining the newly-coined genre that is nu-folk which the Sons’ and fellow Brit acts like Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale have been labeled as. Somehow after hearing Babel, I’m not sure that’s the case.
Babel opens with title track that bears the Mumford & Sons’ trademark sound – strummed acoustic guitar and banjo, and that deep-throated vocal of Marcus Mumford crafting introductory sounds that is all too familiar. First single “I Will Wait” is a banjo-heavy poignant love anthem that screams the word ‘mainstream.’ It hooks like a top-40 favorite with sound so big you only want to experience it live. As Mumford sings in introspection, ‘Now I’ll be bold as well as strong / and use my head alongside my heart,’ you could feel that somehow this should have been a B-side record to Sigh No More and not an entirely a fresh and new sophomore offering.
Almost every song that follows carries a similar formula. “Hopeless Wanderer” is undoubtedly the ultimate crowd pleaser from the album as the song consistently builds up from vigorous piano arrangement as their signature vocal harmonies to power strumming guitar and banjo that adds depth to this sing-along number. Even mellower numbers like “Reminder” and “Ghost That We Know” have the tendency to make you long for their intimate showcases. The former is the album’s acoustic ballad contender that is nowhere near memorable, while the latter is a melancholic string number and possibly the best slow-paced track in the record, but even that doesn’t entirely stand out.
What made Sigh No More a great record was that it introduces an uplifting folk pop sound that was seen as a breather as compared to the overly produced pop offerings. It was refreshing as it was epic. Every song stuck with you and it was the kind of record that you could tune into every day and night; the one you hold close to still, even after two years. Unfortunately Babel doesn’t carry a similar trait.
After a number of thorough listen, you can’t help but feel restless. You know the feeling too well – super packed venue with barely room for air no matter how good the music is on stage. Babel is too adrenaline-heavy as it is suffocating. However, the only difference between Babel the album and Babel live would be that passion and the vibe the band would instill onto you no matter how crowded the mosh pit is. At the end of the day, it’s a choice between devouring decent nu-folk numbers and living that one night of live “Babel” magic. A Mumford & Sons devotee would always choose the latter. Always.