The Sophomore Slump is a terrifying curse. It can take what seem like the most brilliant of musicians and expose them for their inability to create music equivalent to the quality found in their breakthrough performance. For some musicians, the second album will be compared to a debut that was a culmination of the artist’s life work in one collection. For others, it is meant to prove their previous work was not a flash in the pan.
As a music fan, I’ve never been more terrified of a Sophomore Slump than with the release of Babel, the highly-anticipated second album from British folk band Mumford and Sons. With an absolutely fantastic debut (2009’s Sigh No More), Marcus Mumford and his crew had a good bit to live up to with future releases and have generally delivered with another solid effort. The equation worked once, so the songwriting style hasn’t changed much, which, in this case, is a good strategy to roll with. Led by Mumford’s introspective lyrics and the band’s British countryside folk stylings, the band provides much of what we’ve come to expect from the band with a bit of variance for uniqueness sake.
Babel’s title track leads off the album with force and humble words singing about crumbling walls and exposure of ingenuity (“And I know perhaps my heart is farce / But I’ll be born without a mask”). These themes recur in similar ways along with themes from Sigh of searching for something; perhaps God, perhaps love, but certainly a purpose larger than themselves.
The first single, “I Will Wait”, maintains the foot-stomping drive we’ve come to love about Mumford, but lacks the depth we’ve come to expect. It will get stuck in your head, but won’t make you ponder as much as what is to come from the meat of the order; “Holland Road”, “Ghosts That We Knew”, “Lover of the Light”, and “Lover’s Eyes,” which provides some of the most honest lyrics and most dynamic song structuring we’ve seen from Mumford so far. The break at the 3:00 mark of “Lover’s Eyes” is an emotional roller coaster of a crescendo that will resonate in live performances more than any other track (“I walk slow / Take my hand help me on my way”).
Mumford and Sons’ unmistakable harmonies shine through in these tunes with a transition into a bigger sound beginning in “Lover of the Light”, which Mumford have been performing live for over a year. This has been a favorite track of mine since first hearing it performed at Coachella in 2011 and then again, with refinement, a few months later at Deck the Hall Ball in Seattle. As has been typical with Babel, this track is about denying oneself and seeking refuge and hope in another. This track builds and builds to a massive crescendo that gives goosebumps to listeners, leaving them knowing that they believe in something, but not necessarily knowing what.
The shining track on the album is “Hopeless Wanderer”. Mumford sings on this track of a mutual need of support and shelter on a winding road. The journey he speaks of is one that cannot be completed alone (“I will call you by name / I will share your road”), but is also one that he values (“I will learn to love the sky I wander”). The progression of this song lacks a smooth transition in a purposeful way. Admitting to a lack of hope is not a pretty thing, but Mumford finds a way to bring it to beautiful light in this track.
Top to bottom, Babel is a very good album. The struggle that Mumford and Sons created for themselves with Sigh No More was an album whose tracks may each individually hit very hard with each listener at different times in different ways. Babel may do this, but only time will tell. The sound is bigger and the musicianship is cleaner, but Mumford may have played it a little safe rolling with much of what has worked in the past while struggling to make every song stand out like we’ve seen in the past. What we do receive with Babel, though, is honesty that we’ve come to expect from Mumford. Several tracks certainly stand out and will remain in the foreground of greatness when thinking of this album, but a handful of tracks that have not yet resonated may be the difference between their second and first releases. This was certainly my thought with their debut, so we’ll see how several listens will change my perspective. In the end, Babel may not hit with the same ferocity as Mumford’s first release, but is certainly a strong release with plenty of reasons to believe that Mumford and Sons have avoided the Sophomore Slump.