Art only has meaning when we give it. On its own, art of any kind is a blank and inanimate object. But when it smacks up against our lives, when we overlay our own experiences and emotions and connotations, that’s when art stops being a thing and becomes a something. It becomes something that comforts us, commiserates with us, becomes a friend during our long dark nights and our endless sunny days.
Sometimes, you find an artist who, in that one perfect moment, is walking exactly the same road you are. Their music is the perfect mirror for where you are right now. That’s how I felt when I first discovered Mumford & Sons’ debut album Sigh No More.
It was strange to hear this soulful, bluegrass-inspired music coming from a group of Brits, but it worked. It emulated the music I grew up with and loved more than anything, the folk protest music of the ’60s and ’70s–beautiful acoustic instrumentals, tight vocal harmonies, lyrics that were at once cheesy and impenetrable. But all that was coupled with this intense, masculine rage. This wasn’t a whiny rock angst; this was full-throated, brutal anger directed not at the world, but at oneself. But underneath it all, was this hope that it could get better. Even if you’ve “fucked it up this time,” there was always a kernel of hope that the stone could be rolled away, that there was hope. The group’s unending search for home, for the moment when the stone is rolled away and you realize you are not alone in this–yes. We were walking the same road.
When I heard that Babel was coming out, only a few months after I started my full-on love affair with the band, I was stoked. My excitement only grew when I heard the first single, the triumphant “I Will Wait.” This is a song that thunders in your ears, with the band’s traditional guitar and banjo but also with an unexpected and fun brass section. You can’t help but smile at the pure joy pumping through every line. It’s bombastic, it’s loud, it’s tight both lyrically and vocally. It still embraced the struggle of life, but it was proof that no matter how hard things are, we can get through it together. I counted the days for the full album.
Maybe my expectations were too high when the album finally came out. It’s not that I don’t love Babel. But some of those rough edges I so loved in Sigh No More have been smoothed out. It’s a more mature album, no doubt about it. Many of the songs are more restrained, which is good and bad. The content has moved from an intense self-focus to an outward focus. It’s like the band has moved up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: they’ve achieved their own self-actualization, so now they can focus on “waiting” for others, on working to banish “the ghosts that we knew.” But with that self-confidence, the album sacrifices some of that melancholic beauty and fierce anger, some of that questioning and searching.
Musically, this doesn’t push the boundaries of what the band started in Sigh No More. Sure, they added brass sections and an increased emphasis on percussion in some songs, but the songs become almost formulaic. Listen to almost any song, and you’ll hear the same pattern: Start quiet, explode into bombastic ecstasy, decrescendo to a quiet middle section, explode again (or the reverse, with a loud start, as in “I Will Wait,” but more typically, this pattern). Over and over again, like an hourglass. It’s a good pattern, keeping the listener on their toes, but what is unexpected in a song or two becomes dull after the fifth such song.
Don’t get me wrong, there are high notes on this album. ”I Will Wait” remains my favorite track by a country mile, but then again, I’ve had more time to fall in love with it, to sing it in my car at the top of my lungs. I tied it to that anticipation of the album, and after all, isn’t seeing the shiny presents under the tree in many ways better than Christmas morning itself?
The title track, also the first song on the album, is a wonderful bridge from Sigh No More. It has that full, rich sound you expect from Mumford & Sons. This is when I love them the most, when the music smacks you full in the face and they roar with this intensely masculine fury. But this is a fury that’s softened from, say, “Little Lion Man,” one of my favorite songs on the first album. This is a man who’s gone beyond knowing he’s “really fucked it up this time” to one who “knows [his] weakness, knows [his] voice, so now believe[s] in grace and choice.” We’ll continue to see that maturation throughout the album. Unfortunately, the song also delivers the most eye-rolling lyric on the whole album: ”Press my nose up to the glass around your heart” Try thinking of this literally, someone’s chest cracked open, their heart encased in glass with someone shoving their conk right in there.
“Hopeless Wanderer” shows a man whose nature drives him to wander, to leave, but who wants to stay and “long[s], long[s] to grow old.” The accompaniment in this song is fierce; I’ve never played a steel guitar, but it sounds like it would physically hurt to play with that much intensity, like your fingers would be tattered to the bone at the end of the song but you wouldn’t care, that you’d turn to the audience with a manic grin and ask them to help you love the skies you’re under. For a 20-something figuring out what she wants the next phase of her life to look like, it resonates. There’s that call to keep wandering, to keep looking for that something, but also that acknowledgement that at some point, you have to stop. You have to love where you are and who you are.
In a similarly angry vein, which again, is how I prefer my Mumford, is “Broken Crown.” Like many of their songs, it starts off quiet, restrained but grows into a mad crescendo until everyone’s screaming and pounding the strings of their instrument and it’s beautiful. “Now in this twilight, how dare you speak of grace?” they demand. It’s that emotion I identify with, those moments when someone assures you things will turn out all right but you’re not sure you want them to, because you’ve “fucked it all away,” because you refuse to wear a broken crown and take half of what you might have had.
Just to prove I’m not angry all the time, “Below My Feet” serves as a quiet and introspective reminder of the importance of staying grounded, even when you want to float off or wallow in self pity with your broken crown. The song moves from soft, simple beginnings to a tambourine-enlivened affair, and the balance works better here than in other numbers. “Not With Haste” reminds me of Sigh No More‘s “Roll Away Your Stone,” a beautiful song almost derailed by its Irish-inspired intro, which inevitably has me thinking of a tiny leprechaun dancing around a pot of gold. Moments feel self-indulgent here, with a too-spritely banjo and the awful, terrible lyric, “this ain’t no sham/I am what I am,” which takes me to Yosemite Sam, which is bad. But, all that being said, the one lyric “and I will love with urgency and not with haste” makes up for all that.
As much as I would love to embrace every song here as I did on the first album, it hasn’t happened. Yet. Still could; won’t rule it out. “Holland Road” is imminently foregettable, as is “Lovers’ Eyes.” The biggest failure for me, however, is “Lover of the Light,” simply because it had so much potential. It’s almost like two songs smooshed together–you’ve got the strange syncopation and progression on the ends of the verses, which just brings the song to a screeching halt, especially before the full band kicks in. But when he starts singing about “the lover of the light” with his full voice? I can’t help but love it. The lyrics give me all kinds of shades of “If you can’t be with the one you love, baby love the one you’re with,” which is not necessarily a good thing. This song is almost awesome, but doesn’t create a cohesive whole, and that wasted possibility irks me.
Should you buy this album? Yes. I’m still discovering new little musical flourishes, lyrics I love (or roll my eyes at–that’s how Mumford & Sons roll sometimes. It’s cheese, but it’s a really nicely aged Parmesan), or counting the joyful little “woo!”s that pepper the album and which I love without a trace of irony. One note–I bought the deluxe version from iTunes for one simple reason: there’s an album-only bonus track of “The Boxer,” one of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs of all time, and indeed, one of my favorite songs of all time. This version is significantly stripped down, free of some of the cheesy (and wonderful) effects, like the thunder boom and the brass instrumental section from the middle. But it’s still a very worthy cover of the song with a bluegrass twang. The other bonus tracks are nothing to write home about, but that song alone made the extra couple of bucks worth it.
All in all, I still love Mumford & Sons, but maybe we’re in different places in our lives. They’ve grown up and I’m still figuring things out. I can still appreciate the joy and the pain woven through every song, the spangly melodies and the bellowing vocals. Paint my spirit gold, ya’all–it’s a good one.