In their debut album “Sigh No More,” the members of English quartet Mumford & Sons were able to develop a raw, emotional brand of folk rock that connected the band with a modern audience. The album was far from flawless, but those imperfections formed the core of the record’s sincerity.
Given Mumford’s rapid ascent to fame, the most obvious potential pitfall for their follow-up release, “Babel,” was that some of that roughness around the edges would be smoothed away through overproduction, leaving the band too polished to have the same directness and power.
The glass is really filled to the halfway mark on “Babel,” and how listeners judge it will largely depend on what they were hoping to get out of the album. From the “half full” side, this is far from a sellout release; some form of the trademark rawness that made “Sign No More” so effective can be found on just about every track. Unfortunately, on “Babel,” the result is an album composed largely of variations on a theme, lacking the diversity to make it gripping throughout all 15 of its tracks.
From the album’s outset, it’s clear that this is the same Mumford & Sons that we’ve come to know so well. The opening title track starts with fleshed out guitar and banjo strumming, raspy growling vocals and a driving kick drum, and by the time you get to the piano and horn accents in “Holland Road,” you might start thinking that “Sigh No More, Take Two” would have been a more apt title for the album.
Mumford & Sons’ obvious attempt at staying true to their roots leaves the early part of “Babel”sounding rather homogeneous — the first three songs are all up-tempo romps, and there isn’t a real stylistic change until the fifth track, the moody “Ghosts That We Knew.”
That’s not to take anything away from the preceding songs individually, as both “Babel” and “I Will Wait” are as catchy and triumphant as anything on “Sigh No More.” These tracks, however, come off as watered down because they’re surrounded by numbers that are less memorable but highly similar stylistically.
Although there are too many closely-related riffs on “Babel,’”the album does show some impressive flashes of variety on occasion.
“Hopeless Wanderer” begins with a nicely contrastive piano section and features a serious tempo change, “Broken Crown” is a standout darker song and the excellent, folksy tune “The Boxer” finally features the banjo playing a more rhythmically involved melody rather than just straightforward strumming.
Overall, the vocals (which, let’s face it, are absolutely the backbone of Mumford & Sons) have also improved since the last release. Vocalist Marcus Mumford is simultaneously purer and even more powerful than on the band’s first record and, at various point of the album, the group as a whole employs more inventive harmonies than anything on “Sigh No More.”
Ultimately, however, “Babel” is stymied by repetitiveness and instances of poor song structure. At its low points, listening to a song can be like rolling a die: there are a fixed number of outcomes and they seem to be chosen at random. You could get heavy strumming on guitar or banjo, a huge drop to just soft vocals and guitar or a slow build to Mumford’s sixth gear at any point (and sometimes even multiple times) in a song, but many of the tracks lack the reservation and control necessary to allow their biggest moments to hit home.
“Babel” is by no means a step backward for Mumford & Sons, but it also doesn’t find the band coming much closer to realizing their full potential. Rather than taking risks and expanding their sound much, Mumford & Sons seems perfectly content to tinker with a relatively successful formula, and the resulting album is limited to being relatively successful as well.
Fleming is a member of the class of 2013.