Mumford & Sons’ Babel: More Great Americana From Across the Pond

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It was the first day of 2010 Bonnaroo. I sent a text to my fellow WE writer, Behrnsie, to have him check the line-up to be sure I wasn’t missing anything. “You are a(n) [expletive deleted] idiot if you miss Mumford and Sons” was his simple response. I was aware of their existence and their 2009 (2010 in the states) release Sigh No More but had never seen them live nor knew much about them. I will forever be in his debt as that day began my love affair with the music and the live performance of these Brits who couldn’t sound more American if they tried.

Some 2 1/2 years later, Sigh No More remains in the top 30 of the Billboard 200 album chart, “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man” remain in heavy rotation on alt radio, and even after extensive touring of the States (playing most major festivals at least once) Americans (and much of the Western world) remain unable to get enough of Marcus Mumford and company. They even managed to play on The Grammys with Bob Dylan two years ago and somehow, in 2012, managed to garner several Grammy nods from their 2010 release.

Now comes Babel — their highly anticipated sophomore release — sounding like it comes to us by way of Ireland by way of Nashville. Father Mumford and progeny have been teasing live audiences for almost two years with tunes from Babel before releasing the full album (along with a deluxe box set) on September 25th.  Synopsis: I can assure you that it in no way disappoints.

The debate is now raging, however, with fans and critics. No one seems to deny that Babel is good—excellent, even— but, “Good, but more of the same” has been a somewhat constant comment. Me? I just don’t hear it that way.

The great Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown once personally responded to a tweet that was not particularly kind to one of his cast recordings with two words of sage advice…”Listen again!” I would encourage anyone with an “it’s more of the same” attitude about Babel to take Mr. Brown’s advice. Perhaps my point of view is skewed, having seen their thrilling live show four times in the last three years, but the music is the music. And, the music and lyrics on Babel show vast growth in compositional ideas, harmonic complexity, arrangement, lyrical storytelling and allusion. I defy any listener to not be moved in some way by “Broken Crown” or “Under My Feet” – the later of which takes their normal “4 on the floor” drive and swells into a breathtaking 1/2 time anthem.

Marcus Mumford’s religious upbringing informs the gospel tinged vocals, and religiously inflected (but not preachy) themes and imagery follow naturally.  The harmonies are remarkable not only for their uniquely American “old-timey gospel” sound, but also for their tonal purity and the amazing blend that they are able to successfully recreate live.

The issue of …”Good but more of the same” starts with the unique aspects of their instrumentation, (coolest use of banjo ever, no drums on most songs save the kick played by the patriarch, etc.), that upon first listen does sound like what we heard on Sigh No More. American bluegrass is the most obvious stylistic influence in Mumford’s music. But how many genres of music (hip-hop, punk, metal and country spring to mind) use the same basic instrumentation and have the same basic feel?  When listening to Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Flatt & Scruggs you’d be excused for thinking the songs interchangeable from album to album. The truth is: it’s all great. A modern-day Kingston Trio and even modern followers of The New Christy Minstrels are reasonable comparisons. The initial response of some critics—it sounds the same— is waylaid upon further examination, where Babel’s individuality and uniqueness within the style, instrumentation and genre are revealed. That closer listen reveals a growing maturity on the aforementioned levels, a maturity that is rare in new acts.

While I am not quite ready to place them in the same category as classic artists like The Stones, Dylan, U2 and Bruce Springsteen, one can certainly say that these acts all have an unmistakable sound that for the most part use characteristic instrumentation and style of play– so much so that they are immediately identifiable. In this respect, that they have created their own identifiable soundscapes should be viewed positively, not as a demerit. This is most certainly the case with Mumford & Sons.  Their latest offering serves up their signature sound freshly peppered with crunchy and powerful electric guitar and electric bass, at times in lieu of their acoustic brothers. The great red wines of Bordeaux have used the same basic five grape blend every year for hundreds of years with slightly varying percentages. While quality may vary a bit from vintage to vintage, drinking most any year’s efforts from, say, Château Lafite Rothschild will be a beautiful oenological experience. What’s good for the palate is good for the ears. Great wine making is great wine making…you see where I’m going.

M & S’s influence is already being heard in American, British and international acts alike. Rolling Stone recently touted such acts as America’s/American Idol’s Phillip Phillips and Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men in it’s recent feature, Sons of Mumford.” The Lumineers also fit this bill. But Mumford & Sons are a part of a larger international (and in particular British) phenomenon of great Americana music that doesn’t come from America. (See Laura Marling and Mt. Desolation for wonderful takes on a style that, until recently was thought could only originate in that part of the British Empire that got away). What would Pete, Woody, Joan, Hank Sr. and Doc Watson think?…that this is damn good stuff no matter where it originates. And hey, on a parallel front, that California grape juice ain’t bad either.

Writing trips to Nashville and rural England during brief breaks in their touring has produced tunes of great passion, beauty and lyrical exploration. They reveal that this immensely talented quartet of singers and musicians is not content to simply rest on the shoulders of Sigh No More.

While they certainly have found their niche, I repeat: Babel is NOT more of the same from Mumford & Sons. This album will grab you from its first guitar and banjo strums and continue to wonderfully reveal itself in layers of sheer beauty, passion, musicianship, intelligence and artistic exploration. Call it a formula all you want, but when you truly and closely experience this album, you will hear that Mumford & Sons have given us one of the best albums of the year. I preminisce that their international success and influence will continue. Count me in as a member of the extended family.

Let the detractors and skeptics waste their time debating all of this on the blogs and music site message boards…the rest of us will be experiencing the incredible piece of work that is Babel.

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Clem emerged from the underbelly of NashVegas where he began his love of ALL things musical. College found him in the commercial music program at the University of Miami where he actually learned what the hell he was doing. New York was next and whether he “made it there” is still up for debate. From playing in the honky-tonks of Nashville and the dance clubs of Miami to Broadway and theatrical stages around the country, to Carnegie Hall (while practicing one day somebody told him how to get there) and the recording studios of New York and L.A., Clem’s variety of musical experience has transcended the boundaries of genre. He owns a production company, lectures on music in colleges across the country and is on the visiting faculty of Elon Univ. He has a port-o-johns named after him at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza.