Mumford and Sons have far more to live up to on their second album than most bands do.
Since their first LP, “Sigh No More,” hit American stores back in 2010, they’ve sold over a million records on both sides of the Atlantic, served as Bob Dylan’s backing band for his performance at the 2011 Grammys and helped kick off a folk revival that’s still going strong today.
By combining everything from finger-picked banjos, horns and Arcade Fire-esque rhythmic propulsion, “Sigh No More” introduced a sound that instantly recalled any number of bands before Mumford and Sons, but which was identifiable as their own.
Unlike its predecessor, “Babel” isn’t about Mumford and Sons emulating the folk artists before them. Instead, it’s about Mumford and Sons emulating Mumford and Sons.
It’s an impressive facsimile, too. In fact, any of the songs on “Babel” could have been placed in the middle of the tracklist on “Sigh No More” and it’s doubtful that anyone would notice.
They all feature the same instrumentation, similar lyrics and the same basic structure (either “start quiet and then explode” or “start with an explosion and then explode more”). Even the non-musical aspects are suspiciously similar.
Both albums feature faded photographs of the band sitting in an English marketplace on their covers and the titles of both are allusions to classical literature (“Sigh No More” to “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Babel” to the Old Testament).
The thing is, this wouldn’t necessarily be bad in and of itself. Granted, it would be more of the same. But if “the same” means more of a good thing in this case, everything’s fine, right?
Well, this is where the real problem shows itself: “Babel” only sounds like more of the same on the surface.
The songwriting itself, previously one of Mumford and Sons’ greatest strengths, isn’t particularly memorable here. The first three singles on “Sigh No More” were rightfully smash hits, as they featured some of the most irresistible earworms to be found in modern folk.
These songs were so huge that they managed to sneak onto modern pop radio through sheer force of will. In contrast, massive stretches of “Babel” just float by without making an impression, working more as Muzak than anything.
But there are a few highlights, in particular, “I Will Wait.” The song is catchy, anthemic and a well-chosen first single. It’s just as bombastic as the rest of the album, but in a way that works.
On the other hand, “Reminder” stands out by not building to a massive coda, but by remaining relatively quiet for two minutes and two seconds. It’s a breath of fresh air in an album that desperately needs one.
The worst part of all this is that Mumford and Sons are capable of scaling greater creative heights than displayed here. For a particularly interesting taste of what this band is capable of when they push themselves, check out 2011’s “The Dharohar Project EP.”
It’s a four-track release which combines western bluegrass with the folk traditions of Indian music (featuring contributions from guest artist Laura Marling). “The Dharohar Project” could have easily gone off the rails, but it managed to try out a risky East-meets-West concept and somehow make it work.
It’s a shame, then, that “Babel” is a record that got lost in translation.