(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Recording review - Mumford & Sons, Babel (2012)

Heavy handed dynamics crush the subtlety

Mumford & Sons follow in the strong tradition of Great Britain’s folk rock movement, offering a refreshing perspective that contrasts with today’s shallow pop and corporate rock. Like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Waterboys before them, they harness traditional rhythms and instrumentation but still reflect their own modern influences.

Babel is a clear outgrowth of the sound from their first album, Sigh No More. The musical arrangements retain the fresh mix of folky banjo and driving pace of earlier tunes like Little Lion Man, but now the band is more polished. The band has honed their sound in the last couple of years of practice and performance. In particular, they’ve amped up the dynamic shifts in their music. Up until now, this has been one of the band’s strengths. The contrast between a soft cry and a strong response can be powerful. Unfortunately, Babel takes this too far and becomes heavy handed.

Marcus Mumford‘s raw, husky voice drops down as he brings a quiet intensity to the calmer moments, but he’s too quick to rise into full oratorio and the music drives this even harder. With the highs so much stronger than the lows, almost every track becomes an anthem and Mumford begins to seem a bit strident. As the band constantly escalates the emotional stakes, it devalues the power of their dynamics.

This can sabotage the impact of a more subtle song like Holland Road. The track sets up a reflective, open tone supporting lyrics that speak of failure:
With your heart like a stone 
You spared no time in lashing out  
And I knew your pain  
And the effect of my shame 
You cut me down
Just as Mumford’s vulnerable tone sinks in, the song is buried under a fierce rhythmic assault. Mumford’s voice and the music both turn defiant. The words still center on the pain, but the rest of the song undermines any sense of loss. The intent may be a message of overcoming adversity, as the song finally asserts, “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll still believe” with a soaring horn accompaniment, but the narrative doesn’t hold together.

Despite lack of subtlety, Babel shows good lyrical depth, often couched in religious imagery. Biblical allusion is more pervasive than just the title song. The words may touch on love or life’s experience, but a spiritual metaphor is always close at hand. So, the failed relationship in Lover’s Eyes fixates on the singer’s sinful failings:
Should you shake my ash to the wind 
Lord, forget all of my sins 
Or let me die where I lie 
Neath the curse of my lover’s eyes
Similarly, the depression and pain on Ghosts That We Knew leads to a plea for redemption: “Give me hope in the darkness/ That I will see the light.” This religious context seems to reflect today’s evangelical times even if the band isn’t directly pushing that message.

Fortunately, not every song turns so histrionic. The first single, I Will Wait offers a more effective example of Mumford & Son’s dynamic work. It’s stronger in part because it reverses the band’s usual pattern and leads with the uptempo galloping rhythm, relying on the softer moments to add depth. The thick vocal harmonies provide the backbone without over-emoting, adding light touches in the quietest moments: 
Now I’ll be bold as well as strong 
And use my head alongside my heart 
So tame my flesh and fix my eyes 
A tethered mind, freed from the lies

By emphasizing just a couple of those words (“head”, “mind”), they give greater strength to the phrases that follow.

 After all the dynamic swings on Babel, my favorite moment was the relative calm of the bonus track, For Those Below. The beautiful descending guitar intro hints at Dear Prudence by the Beatles while the balanced, close vocal harmonies anchor the song in a folk context. The song still builds, but the scope is more manageable. Where the other songs rely on defiance and will to overcome adversity, For Those Below is more open, suggesting that personal growth can triumph through acceptance. The folky feel recalls Gordon Lightfoot and it’s reassuring to hear that the band can still trust in a simpler sound once in a while.

Speaking of folk idols, it’s telling that Mumford & Sons chose to cover The Boxer, which is perhaps Simon and Garfunkel’s most bombastic song, as another bonus track. Surprisingly, the band toned that down a notch from the original. Adding a banjo line and slide fills, they craft a perfect ornamentation to this classic tune. It’s a nice selection because their version emphasizes the band’s place in the shared folk tradition.

Mumford’s experience drumming for Laura Marling rewarded him for his willingness to step into the light and it could be that theatrical sense which has pushed the band to the relentless extremes they offer on Babel. It’s been a very busy couple of years for Mumford & Sons with the bounty of attention for Sigh No More, working with Ray Davies (Kinks), and playing the Grammys. With luck, the band will have the chance to continue growing and follow Babel with a stronger, more nuanced album.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture

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