Mumford & Sons - "Babel" [Album Review + Stream]

Mumford & Sons - Babel [Album Review + Stream]

Mumford & Sons

Babel

9.5

9.5 Milkitude

  • Island Records / Glassnote Records
  • September 25th, 2012
 
BACKGROUND:
 
The UK quartet coined themselves Mumford & Sons almost five years ago in December of 2007. When the four joined forces at the time, they likely had no idea what the road ahead of them would encompass. All four members - Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, and Ted Dwane - each play a variety of instruments, and they play them as if they have been since birth. The combination of their talent is likely the force behind Mumford & Sons' strong use of the banjo, upright bass, mandolin, and piano give their music a bluegrass/folk instrumentation. The four members were destined to meet and make music; their energy & camaraderie is clear in their live performances alongside their albums.
 
As for how the four met, Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett met while attending King's College School in Wimbledon. Marcus eventually ended up playing several gigs for various acts including Laura Marling throughout the summer of 2007. At this time, West London was finding an increased exposure to bands similar to Mumford's kind of music. Someone once said that time is everything, and in this case, it was. While embarking on his music career endeavor performing throughout West London, Marcus met Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane. He also reunited with Ben Lovett at that point in time. Serendipity? The four of them had a brief spell thereafter as Laura Marling's backing band before forming as one and embarking on their own musical journey.
 
Alas, the band blinked. In 2010, the band was one of the main attractions at Glastonbury Festival. At Hop Farm Festival later that summer, Mumford was also a headliner. At this festival, Bob Dylan was also a headliner. If this wasn't a sign that good things were to come for them, we don't know what was: Mumford & Sons drew a larger crowd than Bob Dylan. It is clear that Mr. Dylan did not mind this, seeing that the two perform together (alongside The Avett Brothers) for the US' 2011 Grammy awards. This, in my opinion, is when Mumford & Sons truly gained exposure within the United States. I remember watching the performance live and asking my friends if they knew who the guys performing were, because I was in love. Much to my dismay, Mumford & Sons had somehow slipped around my radar for a year or two without my realization of their existence. 
 
Sigh No More (Mumford's first album) was released in the UK with Island Records in October of 2009. It wasn't long before they brought the album over to the States with Glassnote Records in February 2010. Realizing that this is not an album review for Sigh No More, I will remain vague in detail; however, this album is and was one of my favorite albums of all time. Mind you, my taste in music is loving anything and everything relate-able, sing-able, dance-able, cry-able, and feel-able (and no, I am not one of those 'I don't like country or classical' types). To me, music that resonates is just that. Sure, one can find beauty in something where another finds fault, but to me, music is the only language every single person in the world comprehends. Nothing is more beautiful than that. I digress. I was truly looking forward to this release, scared it wouldn't live up to my expectations, and hesitant when I pressed play on the first track.
 
Marcus Mumford was brought up in an evangelical Christian household with both of his parents National Directors of the evangelical Vineyard Church in the UK. In an interview with The Guardian, Marcus said that he "thinks faith is something beautiful, and something real, and something universal, or it can be... we all have our separate views on religion, but I think faith is something to be celebrated." Don't get me wrong, the new album Babel is not heavy in Jesus references, but faith is a strong theme throughout it's entirety. 
 
One of the strongest statements any artist can make is within their album title. At times the title is unrelated to anything within, but most of the time the title is all-telling for an underlying theme through the album. As with a majority of the review that follows, what is said can only be an assumption. I wish I could say I am friends with the band and asked them for the hidden meanings throughout Babel. But I can't, so I won't. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel is ancient & mythological, but as with most biblical tales, it delivers a simple message and life-long moral: limit your pride and don't overstep your bounds. A group of people had gotten together to build a tower so tall that they could see the Christian God. All of these men spoke the same language (and all of the earth spoke one language). The story claims that God then changed all the languages so no one could understand one another to confuse the builders' attempting to build the tower. It's a story of confusion and inability. A story of struggle. While the story is not specifically referenced throughout the album, a theme of emotions that the builders must have felt under the microscope of defeat certainly shines through.
 
THE ALBUM:
 
Babel is a strong and impressive sophomore release from Mumford & Sons. The album is crisp in quality, remains true to the band, and worth every minute waiting for its release. It takes every positive attribute about Sigh No More and intertwines them with the band's rooted musicality into a cleaner feel. After reading some reviews on the album prior to listening myself, I found that many people were criticizing the band's lack of innovation in comparison to their previous album. I continually ask myself why music critics feel it necessary to try and fix something that is clearly unbroken. Babel is similar in feel, yes, but there is a reason that Sigh No More is/was one of my favorite albums of all time. Mumford & Sons has done a phenomenal job playing to their strengths and remaining true to themselves. I found that the use of piano, banjo, and mandolin were pivotal to this albums success. That said, though, the mixture of percussion, violin, trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, fiddle, guitar, and vocals are well-blended for a truly powerful listening experience you can actually feel. A job well done.
 
Anyone who knows Mumford & Sons knows one of the most enticing attributes of their style is their use of crescendo. The band has weaved the album together getting each song's message/meaning across by use of instrumental crescendo, vocal crescendo, and/or the silence of either two. The entire album pulls from life's most universal and extreme contrasts in life, love, self-worth. The contrasts extend into the lyrics heard throughout, but also in musicality. Some of the songs dwell on one extreme or another, while other tracks take two different extremes into consideration (loss in the beginning with a sense of hope in the end). When listening to an album, we obviously look to some common theme throughout it in lyrics, but the in-depth epiphanies I had listening to the album from start to finish was similar to learning a life lesson. Mumford & Sons took Babel and changed it from a music album to a story; a story on love, loss, hope, grief, courage, perseverance, being lost, and then being found. Every human on earth can relate to these life-altering emotions & common themes. The album is truly universal in feel. Unlike the story of the men building the Tower of Babel, this album speaks a language that can be felt throughout the world. It tells a story that can be understood throughout the world as well.
 
Babel is an album that I will listen to for a long time to come. There is a track within it that speaks to almost every human emotion felt. Being someone who looks to music as a release in my own life, Mumford & Sons has truly provided (alongside their Sigh No More album) a soundtrack to human life on Earth.
 
THE TRACKS:
 
1) "Babel": A fast-paced way to start the album in contrast to what I was expecting. The typical Mumford & Sons track starts out slow in feel and progresses to a climactic outburst of instruments. Strong vocals in the beginning and throughout. The track encompasses a theme of weakness and strength, living with walls and playing parts, but tearing them down. "Babel" truly portrays the metaphorical undertone to their musical style: playing with highs & lows. 

2) "Whispers in the Dark": The beginning of this track has a classic Mumford feel (there's a dull whisper sound in the beginning of the song and it eventually turns into a crescendo of sound). It is vocal-heavy in the beginning and grows with the instruments resonance. The banjo plays a huge role throughout the track - phenomenally so. This is one of the tracks that references the Lord. I am not religous, but nonetheless one set of lyrics stuck with me: "It's not what I do that makes me. In my weakness I grew strong. Held my tongue. And I've learned from errors made early, a brush with the devil can clear your mind and strengthen your spine." Again, a theme of weakness and endurance in the darkness life can bring.

3) "I Will Wait": This is the only track from the album that leaked prior to this week's release. Similar to the first track on the album, "I Will Wait" has a fast beat right from the beginning. "I came home like a stone and fell heavy in your arms. These days of dust..." These lyrics are reminiscent of Sigh No More in their use of the words 'stone' and 'dust' - both natural elements of the earth. It is apparent that this band chooses their words carefully, and somehow they intertwine with life's natural elements and universal experiences. Within this track lies a heart-wrenching meaning to a beautifully and ironically composed track due to it's fast tempo. I have to pay another tribute to the strings in this track as they truly make it whole alongside the vocals. You can truly feel the emotion, power, and passion behind Mumford's voice. The track builds upon itself but starts off fast, so imagine the power behind the final seconds of the track (they are emotionally gripping). Thus far, all three tracks have had a strong emphasis on the theme of strength and persistence through heartache and hardship. 

[audio:http://files2.earmilk.com/upload/mp3/2012-09/I-Will-Wait--EM0912.mp3]Strea: Mumford & Sons - I Will Wait

4) "Holland Road": Herein lies another "heart like a stone" reference. It's another slow beginning and reminded me of the actual "Sigh No More" track off their previous album. I found myself wondering where on earth Holland Road is, because he is coming back from it. I suppose a little research may find my answer, but some things are better left unknown. Another track with an exemplary build to an instrumental break. It seems that the breaks in vocals are very generous in giving the listener time to soak in the intimacy of the world the band is bringing us into. "If you still believe in me, I'll still believe". In comes the "Winter Winds" trumpets (Sigh No More reference). Again, a powerful build to a point of epiphany and then comes the sing-along-esque "ah, ah, ah's". This is one of the most powerful tracks on the album.

5) "Ghosts We Knew": This starts with guitar and very strong lyrics. A piano eventually makes its way into the picture, and then comes string instruments. "So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light". Again with hope & light and darkness. This is one track on the album that actually does not have a huge impactful instrumental break, but the lyrics are so powerful to the point where the track is still relevant. It seems as though it's a break for the listener to let the album resonate a bit and not seem too overwhelming in outburst.

6) "Lover of Light": A great segway from "Ghosts That We knew", this track's title itself provides light on a somewhat dark album thus far. This is another one of my favorite tracks on the album. It's tale is one of companionship and promise. He speaks of darkness in "there will be no comfort in the shade of the shadows thrown but I'll be yours if you'll be mine". The track is medium in tempo and the instrumental break is strong in piano and guitar in contrast to their typical instrumental breaks. So what is Mumford doing in the darkness to persevere? He continually talks about hope in the beginning of the album, yet his tone is sorrowful. This is the first track that he actually addresses the actions he plan on taking to move toward the light. The theme of this song is 'change'. At about the 3:30 mark, banjo picks up and the instrumental break crescendo makes it's inevitable way into the track. It's gorgeous and seems to encompass all instruments blending beautifully together. The break is more positive in feel than previous ones in the album. Again, I feel like this is the track that shifts the negative tone into a positive one.

7) "Lover's Eyes": This track has a slower tempo and is heavy in vocals. There's a pick-up in tempo at about the 2-minute mark. Mumford places heavy emphasis on needing help throughout the entirety of this track. I don't have many notes on this one, but take a listen and take interpretation into your own hands.

8) "Reminder": This is the shortest track on the album (2-minutes long). It's not heavy in musicality. Again, this album is more of a story than it is a set of tracks. Each track flows heavily into the next in context. This track serves as a reminder to the listener that Mumford has lost someone (he was asking for help from whomever that person/ideal is in the previous track). He needs a constant reminder of where he can find her, a light that will give up the way. He's essentially begging for whomever he needs to make an appearance at this point. Companionship, a universal theme in life, will inevitably save us all. What is the purpose of life if we don't have people to share it with? I would say this very short - but very powerful - track gives us a glimpse into a plea for help to get through the darkness.

9) "Hopeless Wanderer": This is yet another builder. He's finally come out of the darkness in this track! He makes several references throughout to what saved him while he was "there" (wherever there is), and he uses this track to give advice to those who are still in the dark. This track showcases a raw and genuine use of harmony in the chorus. At the 3:40 mark, the strings literally go crazy. Again, a mid-track showcase of talent for this band. It's a powerful track of empowerment and courage; turning, once again, the dark tone of the previous song into one of light.

10) "Broken Crown": This song seemed very similar to "Roll Away Your Stone" or "I Gave You All" (Sigh No More reference) in the beginning. One can imagine from the title's use of the word broken that this track may have an angry underlying tone. It does. Toward the end of the track, the use of instruments to accompany Mumford's voice really nails the anger home. This track plays on both extremes of strength and weakness, but overall the track is stronger than ever in musicality. It's like a fight with himself throughout - he's trying to empower himself. The track ends with an incredibly powerful lyric: "In this twilight our choices seal our fate". Truth.

11) "Below My Feet": This is like a prayer song. If Mumford and Sons were to get down on their knees in the middle of a field and pray to whatever higher power they believe in, this song would encompass all of what they would say. "Keep the earth below my feet", as in, don't let me fall. Essentially, this song is one in which he is asking his higher power to provide him the wisdom to continue walking in the darkest hours of life. Truthfully, I find myself doing the same thing at times. We look to someone else, something else, ANYTHING else, to give us strength in our hardest times in life. This is a great track to listen to as a reminder of things we should be grateful we have if we don't find ourselves having to ask for them. Typically during Mumford songs, they build the music to a climax and keep going with it. This track is unique in that at the 3:40 mark, they actually slow the tempo down (unheard of for Mumford) for a really gorgeously heart-felt impact.

12) "Not With Haste": This is the final track on the album. Mumford's lyrics contest that he is what he is and sadness will be far away. He will be free. This is the freedom song of the album; the conclusion to all of his questions and struggles throughout. The track doesn't provide the listener with an overly happy ending, but a realistic one. It's a great way to end an album of extreme emotional contrasts in story & musical composure. He leaves the listener at ease. I would describe the way they have ended this album with this track as a classy send-off. They have thrown the listener through an emotional/musical rollercoaster, yet in context and content, we're left content. One can hope that this is the way our lives' stories end.

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