Mumford and Sons’ second album, Babel, is a little better than more-of-the-same – not that that would be the worst thing in the world, since their debut, Sigh No More, was both good and commercially successful – but it doesn’t break much new ground, at least not musically. It’s not exactly predictable, but it feels very expected, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and likely, given its huge initial sales, to continue to spawn more bands attempting to mimic their fusion of country, bluegrass, and folk traditions with modern-rock production values.
Babel does vary from its predecessor in one specific way – the album’s music is more upbeat, feeling more like what you’d expect from a live concert experience, without as many of the funereal tracks that populated the first album. Sigh No More‘s high points were largely found in songs that picked up the pace, in whole or in part, with “White Blank Page” the main exception. Babel starts out with the title-track, a slightly formulaic barn-raiser that at least announces that this album will be more energetic than their previous disc, although it also lacks the strong hook that made singles like “Little Lion Man” and “Cave” into big radio hits.
It’s the third track and lead single, “I Will Wait,” that gets Babel going in earnest, an exemplar of what Mr. Carey Mulligan and company can do when they hit all their strengths – tempo changes, heavy bluegrass influences, strong harmonies, and concrete imagery (including the album’s first mention of eyes, which becomes a recurring metaphor through the rest of the disc). The song is as radio-ready as it gets on the disc, without sounding excessively commercial beyond the upgraded production quality. The song begins a five-track run of highlights, including “Ghosts in the Dark,” which veers about as close to straight American country as Mumford & Sons get due to the heavy use of finger-picking; and “Lover of the Light,” which combines several memorable hooks with an off-beat lyrical melody over a repeated piano riff that leaves the listener slightly askew before shifting to more conventional structure in the second half, in by far their longest track yet as well as one of their most layered. Even the later track “Hopeless Wanderer” manages to transcend the slow-fast-slow cliché from their first disc with more abrupt transitions between sections and the tempo contrast between the lyrics and the horse-race feel of the fast guitar riff behind the chorus.
Mumford himself shows some lyrical growth here, avoiding some of the stumbles of the first album and developing some consistent themes across the entire disc, without falling too badly into the sort of fake-profundity that characterizes far too much contemporary music. Several images are repeated across different songs in different context, especially eyes/vision and buildings/walls, while he also exhibits more of the spiritual yearning from the first album, such as a reference to the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich’s views of sin. He also gets five thousand bonus points for successfully using one of my favorite words in the language, sanguine, in a phrase on “Lover of the Light” that has two meanings, both of which work in context.
“Whisper in the Dark,” the second track on the album, feels like filler material to me, and breaks the flow between the title track and “I Will Wait.” “Broken Crown” might have been the second- or third-best song on the disc, seething with rage the way that “Dust Bowl Dance” did at the close of Sigh No More, but instead comes off as a calculated move to replicate the success of “Little Lion Man” through the unexpected use of the f-word – yet where “Little Lion Man” used it to maximum effect, here it’s awkward and even immature, turning a vicious attack into a teenager’s angry yearbook inscription. (Besides, that word alone didn’t make “Little Lion Man” great – it just made it greater.)
I’ll take this album as progress over the first disc, but I’d also like to see these four musicians push themselves further, maybe incorporating more genres, or perhaps continuing their experiments with song structures as they did with “Lover of the Light.” They’re going to sell plenty of albums no matter what at this point, and I have little doubt they can continue to produce memorable hooks, so they have the intellectual and commercial freedom to play around if they want to. I hope the next album goes more in those directions.
If you want experimental indie-pop, another British band, alt-J, might be on the verge of an xx-style breakout, perhaps after they win the Mercury Prize on Thursday, as they’re considered the odds-on favorites to do so. The product of five years of songwriting, and two years of recording, their debut album An Awesome Wave (just $5.99 to download) is a bizarre, textured, trippy perambulation across a broad swath of modern music styles. It might be genius.
alt-J, whose actual name, Δ, is produced on a Mac by pressing the Alt and J keys, draw on a wide tableau of influences that seems to span decades. Each listen to An Awesome Wave brought some other reference to mind, from Nine Inch Nails to Massive Attack to Television to Bollywood soundtracks, with hard swerves in style from track to track. Comparisons to the xx, who won the Mercury Prize two years ago, will be inevitable, since both albums tend toward quieter sounds and minimalist production, but alt-J is Faulkner to the xx’s Hemingway, rewarding multiple listens with greater complexity, crafting all-consuming soundscapes that suck you in with surprisingly catchy hooks.
The album contains three interludes and a short intro, but it’s track 3, “Tessellate,” that announces the band’s presence, with a haunting piano line quickly accompanied by a Tricky-like syncopated drum line, later joined by a disjointed base line that give a tremendous sense of movement and flow. “Something Good” begins with another off-beat drum pattern, joined by a sinister guitar and bass combination that belie the song’s title, only to have the whole thing stop for a Muse-like piano interpolation … and then we’re hearing Turin Brakes over the guitar before we return to the drumline of the opener. “Dissolve Me” fools you with a poppy synth intro that hints at the current new-wave revival, but the heavy, distorted bass line tramples over that sunny feeling like a drunken tuba player. And “Taro” follows its verse and chorus with a percussion and string (perhaps ukulele) line straight out of a Bollywood movie, yet one that fits perfectly in the song’s broader structure.
The biggest single from the album, “Breezeblocks,” remains among my least favorite tracks, with a J-Pop kind of lyrical repetition as well as a vocal delivery that sounds like a parent talking to a infant who’s just found her feet for the first time, although that’s the song that was stuck in my head when I woke up this morning. The lead singer’s style often makes the lyrics tough to decipher, but they are worth the effort, exposing a deeply intellectual and literary bent behind much of their songwriting. One song, “Matilda,” is about the film Léon (a.k.a The Professional), while another, “Fitzpleasure,” deals with one of the most brutal scenes from the scandalous book Last Exit to Brooklyn. The songs drip with clever imagery that will almost certainly leave you pondering hidden meanings and literary or film allusions.
Before this week, I would have tabbed Of Monsters and Men’s debut album, My Head Is An Animal, as the best new release of the year, but as amazing as that album is, it can’t rival An Awesome Wave‘s sheer ambition, packaged in shockingly tight songwriting and enough nods to melody to make this more than mere experimental music. It’s mind-expanding.
And, so I can justify reviewing these two albums together, here’s Mumford and Sons covering alt-J’s “Tessellate:”