Front Page Reviews & AIR
Mumford and Sons - Babel
Babel is a perfect album. If taken on Mumford and Sons’ own terms, the album has no flaws to consider; the band achieved everything they wanted to on Babel. The only thing left to discuss is one’s individual reaction to it.
This is a different kind of perfection than the type that earns perfect tens from critics (see Kanye West’s artistically-minded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which earned max numbers from critics who also acknowledged the album’s flaws). But on Babel, the exact same elements that will be beloved by one camp will be excoriated by another, and none of that rhetoric will have anything to do with how well or poorly the members of the band achieved their own songwriting and performance goals.
Some goals of Mumford and Sons on Babel:
- Create an album that does not upset previous fans of the band.
- Move the lyrical conversation from questions of grace to answers about grace.
- Craft at least one melody per song that can be sung along to.
- Write in as many moments of screaming catharsis as possible.
- Write another ubiquitous hit (or several).
- Have as much fun as possible while playing songs.
Some goals that Mumford and Sons do not have on Babel:
- Create “artsy folk,” as determined by the examples of Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and The Decemberists.
- Write cryptic, Dylan-esque poetry for lyrics.
- Write dark, depressing tunes a la everyone else.
- Observe nuance.
- Experiment with song structures and instrumentation.
- Court critical approval.
In short, Mumford and Sons made the most obvious record they could. It is good-hearted, easily digestible, fun to sing along with, and completely devoid of sinister ambitions. Nothing is hard to understand whatsoever. As NPR’s Ann Powers so neatly noted, this drives elitists nuts. On the other hand, consumers love that stuff. Let the rhetoric ensue.
As far as I've read, the reviews of Babel that go beyond a simple song-by-song analysis have focused on two main themes: the lyrical emphasis on religion and the lack of musical progression from Sigh No More. I have sought the opinions of critics and friends, and the thoughts of players from both categories form a sort of Punnett square:
In other words, Babel is an aesthetic Rorschach test on two fronts: How do you feel about people singing through religious themes in a secular pop music environment? How do you feel about bands that don't even try to change from album to album?
Again, it takes a fully-realized album to crystallize an argument this concrete. If Babel failed at one of its own goals, it could be easily demoted from thinkpiece creation as a “sophomore slump.” But because it succeeds at all of its goals, there is no shortcoming in execution to hammer. The goals themselves are the divisive elements; therefore, what some will adore, others will hate. Liking Babel forces you to explain to yourself and others why you like it; hating Babel does the same. You can't just say, “Oh, you know, the thing everyone hates about it,” and leave it at that.
To wit: the band features four-part harmonies on almost every song; fans say it’s leaning on their skills, critics that it’s fear of stepping outside them. All the songs but one draw their power from a quiet/loud tension; either it’s mature craft or lazy repetition. Love it or hate it: the songs all operate at the same level. Gripe or grin: Mumford delivers his earnest lyrics vigorously.
The only truly objective thing that can be said about Babel is that it is a collection of songs composed mostly for vocals, guitar, banjo, bass, kick drum and piano that all sound very similar. Any judgment placed on that frame needs to be explained in full, because you can’t say that Mumford and Sons don’t sing well. You have to explain why you don’t like how they sing well. You can’t say that Mumford and Sons are ambitious in their songwriting structures; you can only explain why you think it’s a good thing that they are not.
Since I just explained away the section where I talk about how I feel about the album, I’ll make my two cents quick: I love the album, because, according to the aforementioned Punnett square, I’m both pro-lyrical themes and pro-lack of progression.
A. I’m a Christian, so I enjoy hearing some Christian theology in popular music. I’m under no pretensions that this album is high exegesis, nor am I expecting any second Jesus Movement. I just like hearing about Jesus on the radio. If nothing else, it’s a nice change of pace. How Babel relates to the sociological phenomenon of Christian music is another article entirely; let’s just say that Christian music suffers from a lack of artful lyrical expression. And though Babel does not display masterful prose on par with John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), it’s an upgrade compared to most music about Jesus in this respect.
B. Why did Mumford and Sons need to progress? They play folk songs, which to me means “can and should be played by anyone.” And by that measure, the fact that I can learn “I Will Wait” quite easily makes it a great folk song. What’s so wrong with a bunch of simple, boisterous, bellow-them-around-a-campfire folk songs? If in 100 years no one remembers the author of “Lover of the Light” but people still play it all the time, that would be a perfectly fitting fate for the tune. In fact, someone else could pour time into an arrangement of “Whispers in the Dark” and end up with the definitive version of the tune, because there's really not that much of an arrangement around Babel’s version of that or any other song (with the exception of the excellent “Below My Feet” and “Broken Crown”). Making sophisticated art is just not the point of this album.
This sort of obvious, earnest, no-background-needed album resists traditional rock criticism, and (of course) Marcus Mumford knows it: He bellows, “I leave no time for a cynic’s mind” in closer “Not With Haste,” which functions both as a great thesis statement for this album and one of the most admirable sidesteps ever. “You don’t like it, eh? Well, it’s not for you, critic! Begone!” It’s a perfect line for a perfect album. They know they’ve got what they’ve got, and if you don’t like it, the burden of explanation is on you. What do you want to believe about Mumford and Sons? You can support that opinion with Babel. You won’t be wrong.