It's been three years since Mumford & Sons' "Sigh No More" ignited many to debate if an album so gigantic could possibly be authentic. The British foursome went double-platinum with their affinity for folk music and all its rootsy, suspendered trappings. The group roved the globe in support of their debut, performing all the record's chestnuts and sometimes getting antsy enough to test-drive new tunes on audiences. While songs like "Ghosts That We Knew" and "Lovers' Eyes" rang strong in performance, "Babel" (Sept. 25) showcases those strengths precisely harnessed in the studio with producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Bjork), the same engineer behind "Sigh No More."
The sophomore LP dials Mumford's volume knob several distinct notches past the place it's sat for the last three years. "Babel" reveals a band happy to remain entirely Mumford - although a larger, smoother Mumford, offering fresh nuances and textures while emboldened by the promise of the initial mission. The group is still skyrocketing into success, and these four gentlemen are in a powerful creative zone as they pack another album with sing-alongs.
Marcus Mumford, now 25 years old and newly married to actress Carey Mulligan, sounds stronger and more convinced of himself. The percussion remains a low throb below the earnest string-based songwriting. The guitars are richer and more vivid. The banjo continues its pluck into pop culture's curious eye. The bombast is clearer. "Babel" is not the wheel reinvented; it's the wheel in HD.
What are some of the highlights of "Babel"? Check out our track-by-track breakdown of Mumford & Sons' sophomore album.
1. "Babel": Here's the official announcement of the sonic upgrade -- when the title track from "Sigh No More" hit your speakers, it never sounded poor, but it didn't sound like it was being performed live in your living room, the way "Babel" does.
2. "Whispers in the Dark": The second of a two-punch opener showing renewed lyrical elegance from Marcus Mumford ("This cup of yours tastes holy / but a brush with the devil can clear your mind, the strength in your spine"), and the disc's first trace of electric guitar ambience. The song's slightness keeps it far from a genre-shift, but it's a new flavor for the band.
3. "I Will Wait"
It's hard not to bow to the craftsmanship behind this single. There's something scientific behind that strum pattern and its hearty tone, and how subsequently pumped up you'll find yourself. The chorus features a rich harmony transcending anything on "Sigh No More," and the song is arguably grander than anything that appeared there, as well.
4. "Holland Road": A slow-burning fist-pump featuring some of the record's first flecks of grit. It's jarringly somber after "I Will Wait," although, as with any self-respecting Mumford song, it gets pluckier and more anthemic by the midpoint, wrapping with a horn-kissed finish set (again) to the theme of believing in oneself.
5. "Ghosts That We Knew": Once more it seems Mumford's going to dish out a pensive, potentially sad tune -- and then you're tapping your toe to "Ghosts That We Knew." Despite that coup, it's the "Timshel" of the record, laced with quiet echoes and reverie.
6. "Lover of the Light": An exceptionally written song made for live performance - which explains why the fellows have been opening all their recent concerts with it. There's a heavy country-music air to this Mumford staple in the making.
7. "Lovers' Eyes": Wait, we're sequencing back-to-back songs with "lover" in the title? If you say so. This one's stuffed with strong imagery ("I feel numb beneath your tongue," "Tame the ghosts in my head that run wild and wish me dead") and set to a steadily crescendoing melody supported by a spot of accordion.
8. "Reminder": Nope, it's not a cover of Jay-Z's "Blueprint 3" track; instead, "Reminder" is a brief two-minute strum through the peril of fading love. The album's most basic tune, and no less tender for it.
9. "Hopeless Wanderer": Enjoy 90 seconds of piano-lead standard Mumford fare before this song drops everything and morphs into the closest thing to an all-out rock song the band has ever offered. Pounding electric guitar drives straight into a severely twangy country-style lick.
10. "Broken Crown": Ah yes, the requisite single joint on the album with an emphatic F-bomb ("I took the road / and I f--ked it all away / now in this twilight, how dare you speak of grace?"). But unlike "Little Lion Man," this one's a darker, more menacing tune.
11. "Below My Feet"
More electric guitar flourishes (are these hints that Mumford's heading for their "Dylan goes electric" moment next time around?) guide this song into of the album's most enormous conclusions. There's no excuse for this one not wrapping up the record.
12. "Not With Haste": Lines like "I'll never learn to put up a guard" and "This ain't no sham / I am what I am" start off this finale, which reads altogether like a closing statement that the group's going to keep doing what they're doing no matter how many detractors try to hang them on the "faux-folk" peg.