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Music Review: Mumford & Sons – Babel

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Could it be? Has Marcus Mumford found God?

As the frontman for the English band Mumford and Sons, Mumford – who single-handedly sparked rock’s banjo revival – has every reason to believe in a benevolent Higher Power. First, there was the critical and popular success of his band’s debut album Sigh No More. Then there’s his recent marriage to the luminous actress Carey Mulligan. The icing on the cake has been the chart-topping juggernaut of the band’s second outing, Babel, which shows no sign of relinquishing its #1 spot. (Well, someone had to take over while Adele is on maternity leave.)

Yet even all that blessedness can’t explain the riddling religious allusions on every track of Babel.  Here’s just a few lines, taken from random songs: “And I’ll believe in grace and choice,” “And this cup of yours tastes holy/But a brush with the Devil can clear your mind,” “I’d been set to serve the Lord,” “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light,” “Lord, forget all of my sins,” “ I came out of the woods,” “Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn,” “I was told by Jesus all was well”—hoo-whee. He speaks of crawling on his belly, of wearing a broken crown, of being a leader of the flock, of sins and arks and days of dust – hardly your usual indie-rock vocabulary.

I suspect, however, that what’s going on here is something less godly and more opportunistic. Having lifted large chunks of the American folk music tradition – bluegrass banjo picking, furiously strummed acoustic guitars, squeezebox vocal harmonies, foot-stomp drums, and flourishes of Salvation Army-style brass – the Mumfords can almost be forgiven for inadvertently lapsing into the language of a 1930s tent revival.

Besides, this isn’t a band you listen to for the lyrics. It’s their sound that matters, a boisterous hootenanny craftily tempered with indie gloom. Facing the perennial sophomore album dilemma, the Mumfords made a wise choice not to tamper much with that distinctive sound. After all, rootsiness suits the weathered creaks of Mumford’s vocals and, well, what else are you going to do when your lead singer plays banjo?

If anything, they have aggressively deepened that groove, stepping up tempos and cranking up the volume (all the better to reach the far seats of the large venues they now play). From the pumped-up title track on, Babel defiantly answers all those naysayers who doubted whether their sound really qualified as rock music.

With the exception of the wistful track “Reminder,” Babel largely abandons meditative ballads in favor of thrashing anthems. Leading off the album with apocalyptic rage, the title track “Babel” threatens to tear down the walls of a hypocritical society. Sexual urgency throbs through “Whispers in the Dark” and the anguished surrender of “Lovers’ Eyes,” and is counterbalanced by the exultant joy of “I Will Wait” and “Lover of the Light.”

That’s not to say that there are no quiet moments on the album; the Mumford formula has always involved dramatic switches from plaintive hush to raucous fervor. Like Bruce Springsteen (there’s a rock antecedent for you), the Mumfords love building songs to a thunderous climax, whether or not the song’s story warrants it.

Even a track like “The Ghosts That We Knew,” with its haunting melancholy, eventually surges into anthem mode. Desperation tears savagely through the gloom of songs like “Holland Road,” “Hopeless Wanderer,” and “Broken Crown.” Toward the end of the track list, hooky melodies and dance tempos jack up songs such as “Below My Feet” and “Not In Haste” to the requisite Big Finish.

Yet it’s such gutsy, vibrant music, I’m willing to write the Mumfords a hall pass. Who cares whether it’s “authentic,” whether it’s truly rock, or even what the lyrics mean?

Bottom line: When these songs dial up on my shuffle, I stop what I’m doing and smile. That may not be old-time religion, but it’s good enough for me.

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About Holly Hughes