2. Whispers in the Dark
3. I Will Wait
4. Holland Road
5. Ghosts That We Knew
6. Lover of the Light
7. Lovers' Eyes
9. Hopeless Wanderer
10. Broken Crown
11. Below My Feet
12. Not With Haste
I’ll be honest. I’ve never worshipped at the feet of Mumford & Sons. While everyone else got their fix of Sigh No More, I instead dove deeper and listened to other bands from the same tradition including Nathaniel Rateliff, Cory Branan, and Chuck Ragan. Their debut was pleasant enough to generate a few repeated spins on my iPod, but not enough to compel me to hail them as folk rock’s brightest new sons.
Perhaps it’s because of my lack of knowledge about the band that I can say that, while I’m thoroughly charmed by their new album Babel, I’m still not ready to throw flowers at their feet. British by nationality but American by soul, Babel doesn’t speak in tongues unlike the tower of its namesake? its singular voice resonates the sound of banjos, acoustic guitars, fireside drums, and vocals so earnest that you could swear they’re pleading for their lives. While it may be an understatement to call this a beautiful-sounding record (it has more pastoral expansiveness than a John Williams film score, more heart than a Crowded House record, and more spirit than a Yankees game on opening night), Babel’s beauty seems to be anchored more on the golly-gee neo-folk novelty shimmer rather than an honest-to-goodness sense of deep woods elation.
From the finger pickings and rabid tambourine pounding of the opening title track, it’s clear they mean business. Like a manic sea shanty fueled by a punk heart, Babel comes across like the UK’s version of a jamboree with members of Fairport Convention and Hothouse Flowers backed by The Pogues. “Whispers In The Dark” increases the intensity and ups the ante, reinforcing their oh-so-earnestness at a breakneck speed (well, as fast as a banjo can go), with Marcus Mumford’s vocals emoting pure heart when he’s singing, “know my weakness, know my voice.”
Not short on emotions and propulsiveness, the first half of Babel is an exhausting listen? “Holland Road” plays with tempo, sprinting you through the verses till you get slammed to an almost full-stop with the ebb of the chorus with just enough time to catch your breath. By the time the tender “Ghosts That We Knew” offers a sweet change of pace, there’s a real need to decompress, adrenaline be damned. Surprisingly, the latter half of the record powers down the engine and, in effect, loses much of its steam. While the first half ushers you at Mach 5, the home stretch feels protracted and extended? languid even. It’s a shame really, since the anticipation for a final cathartic banjo-led climax to bring it all home goes unfulfilled, leaving a frustrating case of musical blueballs.
Babel is a really good record? But what prevents it from being a great record is that missing final clincher. It’s the musical equivalent of really great foreplay that never really makes it past second base.