English indie-folk outfit Mumford & Sons has returned with a new full-length album titled “Babel.” The follow-up to their widely successful debut, “Sigh No More,” “Babel” has been highly anticipated.
The rich sounds that explode from this modest four-piece group are undeniably stellar. Boasting an impressive mastery of their instruments and an impeccable ability to create bright, full vocal harmonies, Mumford & Sons is nothing if not a group of competent musicians.
But it is difficult to escape the notion that they are running out of ideas.
Each song on “Babel” seems to draw heavily off of elements that were employed in the composition of the band’s last album. While most of the tracks are solid enough on an individual basis, the album as a whole becomes painfully predictable – a common pitfall of the Americana folk tradition, which is arguably past its prime.
The first single, “I Will Wait,” is highly reminiscent of the band’s single “Little Lion Man,” which dominated radio waves in 2009. The overlap comes from the guitarist’s use of a nearly identical strumming pattern during the verses. Fortunately the song is able to overcome this setback.
Extremely uplifting from the outset, “I Will Wait” features a manic banjo surrounded by a perfectly constructed wall of violin and guitar. The melody diverges enough from the “Little Lion Man” sound for “I Will Wait” to form its own identity as a worthy single.
The second single is also the title track and album opener. The song is a stop-and-go uphill climb, regularly suspending percussion to focus more clearly on the impassioned vocals and elegant poetry of singer Marcus Mumford.
The predictability, on the other hand, is rarely suspended. A lot of the songs, such as “Whispers in the Dark” and “Holland Road,” follow patterns so similar that the tracks become difficult to distinguish from one another. Songs that might have otherwise been called great are sadly forgettable as a consequence.
Among this largely homogenous collection of deep tracks, there are at least a few noteworthy highlights.
“Lover of the Light” is one such example, with a build-up that leads listeners to a gratifying payoff. Mumford triumphantly shouts at climaxes of the composition, “lover of the light!” to breathtaking effect. The song’s lyrics illustrate the band’s dynamic approach to songwriting.
Another highlight is “Lovers’ Eyes,” a song that helps break down the album’s ever-present walls of loftiness and squeaky-clean sentimentality. A brief reference to self-medication suddenly makes Mumford seem decidedly more human, and therefore more accessible.
Most of the songs on “Babel” are, like the lead single, upbeat and uplifting. Mumford & Sons has mastered the formula for infectious optimism, but utilizes it so often that the effect is diminished.
Fortunately, “Babel” also comes with some tender ballads. “Ghosts That We Knew” and “Reminder” both fall into this category. These softer tracks serve as much-needed breaks from the record’s sobering monotony.
“Broken Crown” also helps to break the cycle, being the only song on the album composed in a minor key. Its anger and mild profanity are refreshing on a record where nearly every song sounds like something Henry David Thoreau would have listened to while bathing in Walden Pond.
Those willing to shell out the extra $3 for the Deluxe Edition of the album will have the chance to enjoy what are arguably the best tracks “Babel” has to offer.
“For Those Below” is an acoustic ballad that brings desperately needed variety to the album. It takes an approach that diverges greatly from the formulaic songwriting that dominates “Babel.” The fact that this song was included as a bonus track instead of being made a standard feature of the album is utterly unconscionable.
Another bonus track available with the Deluxe Edition of the album is a worthy rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “The Boxer.” As with “For Those Below,” including this as a bonus instead of a standard track was a poor choice.
Over all, “Babel” is a surprisingly mediocre release. There are not any bad songs on the album, as each track is impressive when judged on its own merits. But the collection as a whole is inescapably bland.
Chris Trubac can be reached at email@example.com.