Folk Romanticism Unabridged: Mumford and Sons’ Babel

Part of me is reluctant to admit that I really like this album. Why you ask? Don’t get me wrong, I was blown away by Sigh No More, the English foursome’s debut record of heart-on-sleeve up-beat English woodland folk, the kind of music you might hear as an accompaniment to an adaptation of a Shakespeare production in a public park. (It would be fitting given that the title of the record refers (and is likely inspired by) lines composed by the Bard himself in Much Ado About Nothing.) Although their sound is rustic, Marcus Mumford and his band of merry men are not necessarily boys from the rural countryside of the English Isles. Quite the contrary these are lads from the hinterland of London, “the city that nurtured my greed and my pride.” All one need do is glance at the cover of Babel (see to the right), the band’s newest record, and you’ll see what could easily be mistaken for a Brooks Brothers meets United Colors of Benetton Ad – an image of such sartorial and artistic precision that part of you gets a little queasy. THAT is exactly what puts me on edge: the sense of extreme polish and almost machine-like precision of the work on the surface. Despite this pristine veneer what always shines throw is an undeniable yearning and earnest humanity. In this way, M&S are the English equivalent of NYC’s Vampire Weekend. Young and unquestionably uber-talented musicians who can fashion songs in a tradition previously traversed, with the luxury of better equipment and production values. Any time young artists succeed at such an early age with such a seemingly privileged pedigree, there will be detractors and haters – heck, even I have moments of furrowed brow consideration. The edges seem too polished, too early and unlike other folk troubadours these guys didn’t have to spend years honing their craft on the road and in dive bars. So what? They are both really good at what they do and manage to straddle that rare line of mainstream success with genuine artistry. Although their music is popular and accessible (which isn’t a bad thing, because isn’t that part of the goal, to communicate with others?), both bands are clearly music and lyrical nerds. This shines through in the complexity and creativity of their sound and in the subtle allusions and witty references contained in their lyrics.

On Babel, Marcus Mumford and his band of merry men continue their project of composing and telling tales filled with a tempestuousness R/romantic fury that would chill even the blood of the Thane of Cawdor and the weird sisters and definitely will induce blood from even the stingiest of stones.  (Romantic = both in sense of the literary/artistic movement and the amorous sense of the word; don’t always overlap but here i think they do) As with Sigh No More, the songs on Babel often employ a rather clever and effective Romantic troupe: the self-abasing, the repentant, and/or the regretful lover (and sometimes all at once!). By exposing the weakness of the narrator, his need, dependence, and reliance on the Other, he seemingly disarms himself, and, yet, at the same time, he also is “hero” and romantic exemplar. In other words, he writes songs that make people empathize and swoon with emotion. Unlike many songwriters who try to convey their power and attraction through diffidence and allure, M&S rely on “weakness”. (Sinatra wouldn’t be impressed but then again old blue eyes rolled with a different set of “friends” in his day.) And, it’s not just the words, but the unrelenting drive of the music throughout. Starting with the opening quasi medley of “Babel”, “Whispers in the Dark”, and “I Will Wait”, Marcus Mumford plows through a series of gut wrenching vocals that are matched by the these gorgeous and furious string arrangement of an Anglo-Folk tradition (read: less Appalachia and more English glen). The record also contains more plaintive ballad-like pieces of self-reflection, the equivalent of a monologic aside, such as “Holland Road” and “Reminder”. In the calm after the storm atmosphere, you are able to fully absorb the details of the emotion. Perhaps the best microcosm of the varying musical and lyrical gimmicks employed in Babel is the euphoric “Lover of the Light”, which crescendos into a series of multi-part harmonies punctured by Marcus Mumford’ soul-searing, guttural howl. As I’ve said to friends over the past couple of days, Marcus Mumford really just sings the heck of a song, almost allowing the entirety of his soul or the emotion he seeks to convey to pour forth. I’ll admit, it’s sentimental and saccharine at times, but, look, sometimes it’s okay to be a hopeful romantic. Mumford and Sons are the perfect soundtrack to this state of being. Consider yourself warned, heartache and hope this way lies.

Listen to Mumford & Sons’ Babel in its entirety by clicking the link.

And if you missed Sigh No More, regret not, and listen anon.

On the morrow,

a.a.

p.s.  My two remaining reservations about this record are (1) that both the first and fourth track contain guitar chords reminiscent of songs from the Goo Goo Dolls Dizzy Up the Girl and (2) the title of the record is rather “lofty” and doesn’t capture the associations I have with “Babel”.  But, perhaps, the intent was to communicate the universality of the themes and feelings conveyed and contained in the record’s tracks?  It’s just a thought.

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