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Reviews

Babel

Pippa Wragg-Smith

Mumford & Sons
Island Records

Already at the top of the album charts, the fastest selling album of 2012, Babel has certainly fulfilled expectations. Mumford & Sons, darlings of Radio 2, have enjoyed an incredible rise to fame since their first album Sigh No More. The band has done a clever thing. They took a genre - folk - which has long been on the periphery of the popular music scene and brought it right back to the centre of culture. Stealing the clothes of a political art form for  commerce's sake, some say. But who could have guessed that what the charts begged for was earthy, folky, foot-stomping bluegrass played by beardy men in flat caps?

The songs on this record are incredibly catchy. You will already be familiar with the radio-played-to-death 'I Will Wait'. Driving guitars and a manic banjo, great harmonies and a massive chorus ensured its place as one of the big singles of the year. If singles are used as a window into an as-yet-unpurchased album then that one serves its purpose - the rest of the record is in exactly the same vein. But despite the fact that they've chosen an unusual genre to work in, they're not doing anything surprising with it musically. What really floats the record is the lyrics - the words do possess a certain weightiness, not surprising considering that M&S lift lines from Shakespeare, Homer, GK Chesterton, Steinbeck and of course the Good Book itself.

Genesis 11 tells us that the people spoke a common language and had a unity of purpose in the building of a great tower which 'reaches to the heavens'. So God, in God's wisdom, confused their language and scattered the people all over the earth. The theme of seeking, journeying and yearning for a lost wholeness is strongly felt on Babel. Mumford's depictions of a fractured existence litter the lyric sheet: 'These days of dust which we've known will blow away with this new sin' ('I Will Wait') and 'I have no strength from which to speak where you sit me down and see I'm weak' ('Not With Haste'). Singer Marcus Mumford offers several lonely reflections on his own failings: 'Lord forget all of my sins or let me die where I lie' reminiscent of Elijah's plea.

Despite these bleak musings the music remains defiantly upbeat - dare I say bombastic. The relentless rhythm guitar and banjo at times feel rather harrying and there's little light and shade in the vocals. 'Ghosts That We Knew' gives the listener a pause for breath but the album feels somewhat spaceless and rushed.
If the story of Babel tells of a people thrown into confusion, Babel the record does nothing of the sort. The band told the Sun recently that 'We think this new record will attract a different audience … and broaden people's view of us'. But this is the sound of consolidation. There's nothing new to see here.

Pippa Wragg-Smith