The Return of the Kings: Mumford & Sons’ “Babel”

Mumford & Sons’ highly-anticipated sophomore album, Babel, successfully delivers everything that was great about their Grammy-nominated debut Sigh No More. But to some fans, this may be disappointing news. Many of us were waiting for something fresh or different, perhaps a side of Mumford we didn’t hear in the first album. However, the band offers nothing new musically here, and they do seem to play it a bit safe by sticking to that familiar sound of foot-stomping anthems and heart-wrenching ballads that won our hearts (and ears) in their first album.

In other words, the music is great, it’s just nothing different.

But I’d also say that bands rarely reinvent themselves on a second album, and since the ingredients of Sigh No More launched the English foursome into international success, Mumford has sensibly obeyed Bert Lance’s advice, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Still, for any band whose debut unexpectedly (and nearly unilaterally) ignited a folk-music revival by wooing the mainstream masses with a not-so-commercial-friendly genre (Indie Folk), the sophomore album (no matter how good) might be a disappointment in one way or another.

However, Babel does offer what I believe to be the best songs the band’s ever written (“I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light,” “Lover’s Eyes,” and “Below My Feet” are nothing short of epic). The religious quality of their lyrics is somewhat expected, as many listeners of Sigh No More quickly recognized the spiritual undertones and biblical language of “The Cave,” “Awake My Soul,” the title-track and others. But what most distinguishes Babel from its predecessor is its thematic cohesion; the album’s uniformity resembles that of a concept album unified by its single (and profoundly religious) theme: the deep longing for light and truth in a world of darkness and deceit.

Lyrically, Mumford is in top form here, so I think highlighting the poetic quality of their lyrics is in order. Personal confessions, joyous eulogies, aching laments, and numerous binary-ladened motifs of “dark,” “light,” “blind,” “sight,” “lost,” and “found”  fill the album from beginning to end, underlining the dualistic nature of its theme, truth vs. falsehood.

The first track, “Babel,” opens the album with triumph and power, and its gritty timbre and biblical imagery instantly establish the album’s tone of restlessness and a longing for the transcendent. Alluding to the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel, the title-track explores human weakness with the confessional cry,

Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride,
I stretch my arms into the sky,
I cry Babel! Babel! Look at me now,
Then the walls of my town, they come crumbling down…
‘Cause I know my weakness know my voice,
and I’ll believe in grace and choice
And I know perhaps my heart is farce,
but I’ll be born without a mask.

The confessional language here is echoed by the humble plea in “Whispers in the Dark”: “Spare my sins for the ark, I was too slow to depart, I’m a cad but I’m not a fraud, I’d set out to serve the Lord.” Indeed, several songs either sing as prayers, both penitent and petitionary, or allude to prayerful bearing. The joyous “I Will Wait” shines as the band’s most melodious song to date, complete with its anthemic refrain near the end that evokes the aching request of a man in need of redemption:

And I’ll kneel down
Wait for now
I’ll kneel down
Know my ground

Raise my hands
Paint my spirit gold
And bow my head
Keep my heart slow

This prayerful tone continues in “Holland Road,” a darker song that begins with the admission, “So I was lost,” but ends with the spirited promise,

And I’ll still believe
Though there’s cracks you’ll see
When I’m on my knees I’ll still believe
And when I’ve hit the ground
Neither lost nor found
If you’ll believe in me I’ll still believe

The haunting yet hope-filled “Ghosts That We Knew” furthers the exploration of the desire to find the truth and light: “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light, ‘Cause oh they gave me such a fright, But I will hold as long as you like, Just promise me we’ll be alright.” Similarly, the hymnic “Lover’s Eyes” tells the story of heartache and guilt through the eyes of a wandering soul haunted by lost love:

Love was kind, for a time,
Now just aches and it makes me blind,
This mirror holds my eyes too bright,
I can’t see the others in my life

Were we too young? And heads too strong?
To bear the weight of these lover’s eyes.
‘Cause I feel numb, beneath your tongue,
Neath the curse of these lover’s eyes.

But the lamenting tone of the track ends on a redemptive note with the line, “Lord, forgive all of my sins,” and group harmonies howl a demand to be rescued out of a loveless desert: “And I’ll walk slow, I’ll walk slow, Take my hand, help me on my way.” The gentle chorus of “Reminder,” a quiet 2-minute ballad, captures the album’s theme as Mumford pleas for the “light that might give up the way” to his lover, for “without her [he’s] lost.” The rousing “Hopeless Wanderer” extends this theme further as Mumford echoes the psalmic angst of an aimless man facing the painful truth of his errs:

But hold me fast, hold me fast,
Cos I’m a hopeless wanderer.
I wrestled long with my youth
We tried so hard to live in the truth
But do not tell me all is fine
When I lose my head, I lose my spine

The album reaches its musical and thematic climax with the soaring yet solemn chorus of “Below My Feet,” the most captivating melody of the album.  In an almost a cappella chant, the foursome makes its boldest request, one that can only be made to a higher power: “Keep the earth below my feet, For all my sweat, my blood runs weak, Let me learn from where I have been, Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.”

While the Mumford & Sons of Babel sound just like, well, the Mumford & Sons of Sigh No More, the new album is conceptually cohesive and musically compelling. The album is great because the songs are great, and though the band’s sound is familiar—acoustic-driven folk-rock accompanied by gritty vocals, raw harmonies, bright horns, and a banjo pickin’ to the pulse of a kick-drum—the album is refreshingly poetic, passionate, and powerful, a rarity in today’s musical landscape.

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4 thoughts on “The Return of the Kings: Mumford & Sons’ “Babel”

  1. Did anyone catch the themes in “Broken Crown”? I haven’t studied it, but I’ve listened to it on repeat. The strong sound of the song drew me, but the lyrics kept me. I couldn’t help but hear the themes of a confession of Lucifer, as he fell from Heaven. He mentions not speaking of grace, slivering on the ground for the rest of his life, not wearing his broken crown…and yes, that he f*cked it all away. I might be imagining it, but it does seem consistent with the other themes. Your thoughts?

  2. Wow, I didn’t catch that before. “Broken Crown” is not one of my favorites, so I sort of overlooked its lyrics. I’ll definitely have to give that one a second chance. Great thoughts!

  3. Justin, I truly enjoy reading the way your mind works; you perceive things and ideas that go right over my head. Now I will have to go out and buy these two albums just to see if I can catch a glimpse of what you see. Meanwhile, I anxiously await more of your music. P.S. That’s a beautiful sidekick you have singing with you. Michael

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