Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mumford & Sons pt. 2, or "Homeruns and Strikeouts"

Today was the US release of Mumford & Sons' new album, Babel. I wanted to love it completely, but I have some beef. I don't want to come off as a grump. The reason why I'm going to be hard on them is that they've set such a high standard for themselves.

The title track, "Babel," is great. I love the energy, right from the get-go. Just the timbre of the guitar establishes a pace and direction for the song, and we know it's going somewhere fast. We get great, mostly nonsensical but compelling lyrics, my favorite being, "I stretch my arms into the sky / I cry, 'Babel, Babel, look at me now! / For the walls of my town, they come crumbling down.'" This song is a homerun. I especially like Marcus Mumford's little "whoo!" in the middle.

"I Will Wait," a single that's been out for a while now, is not so solid a triumph. The music is great, but the lyrics are lackluster. I mean, the chorus is just "I will wait for you." Come on, guys. I mean, the music is really moving, but there's no substance behind it. The song creates neither a narrative nor even a string of images. This is no "White Blank Page."

"Lovers' Eyes," though, is a homerun, with a few caveats. The way the song starts out with that electronic ambience kind of gets on my nerves. It doesn't sound like anything Mumford & Sons has done before, or like anything else on the album. I don't feel like it's their style; I feel like it's the style of their producer, who also works with Bjork. This feels much more Bjork than Mumford.

Continuity, actually, is one of my biggest problems with this album. I learned from iTunes that it was recorded over the space of 18 months in four separate studios. They said that like it was a good thing. But Babel lacks the cohesion of their first album, and it sounds like a series of hit-and-run recordings. And the lyrics sound a little scatterbrained and recycled. Here are a few words Mumford should put to bed for at least a few albums:

Stone, grace, shame, son(s), heart, sin, tongue, truth, rage.

But back to "Lovers' Eyes." They have some fun wordplay with the idea of sight. Blindness and brightness establish themselves within the first verse, and the whole "I'll walk slow / take my hand" definitely implies a blindness at the end. It's kind of a great progression. I love it. I also love the almost a capella passages in this song. Their harmonies are tight, rich, and full.

The ultimate strikeout for me, though, is "Broken Crown." At the risk of sounding like a prude, it's largely because of their vulgar (and frankly idiotic) use of profanity. On iTunes, I pre-ordered a non-explicit version of the album, which version appears to now be non-existant. So I was surprised when I kept hearing, "I can take the road, and I can f### it all the way." (This is a family blog.) Yes, "Little Lion Man" has similar profanity (which is why it remains unchecked on my iTunes library), but at least "I really f###ed it up this time" is something people say. 

What does that even mean, "I can take the road, and I can f### it all the way?" If we take it literally, it seems like 1) a really inefficient mode of transportation and 2) a guaranteed way to get some serious chafe-age. But my objection isn't just that I won't listen to something because they used a dirty word. The reason I listen to great music and poetic lyrics is that I want to momentarily get a lift away from quotidian ugliness. I want to feel moved and inspired. If I just wanted to hear nonsensical obscenities, I wouldn't listen to music. Lyrics like that go against the very reason why I put on my headphones.

"Broken Crown" is full of sexy wordplays, and whatever. That's their prerogative, but when I come across lyrics like, "Crawl on my belly til the sun goes down / I'll never where your broken crown," I have to ask with Michael Bluth, "Have I missed this euphemism?" I never thought I'd compare a Mumford lyric to Gob. Not a good sign.

It's like the old saying goes, "Anything too stupid to be spoken is sung."

So, in sum. There are a few really good singles on this album, one song that made me feel betrayed, and the rest are just okay. The album as a whole comes off as poorly planned, subject to caprice, and executed by amazing musicians. To put this in perspective, I was so frustrated when I finished listening to it this morning that I felt compelled to watch "Gangnam Style."



  1. I definitely hear you on the topic of "Broken Crown." I mean, where'd that crap come from? I quite liked the first half--it visited part of the song "Till Darkness" (which I really like) but then it got to that vulgar chorus. Lamesauce.

    I also like the earlier version of "I Will Wait," which doesn't include the repetitive chorus... I feel like I already sort of knew this album before it came out, thanks to great fans who've recorded stuff from concerts.

    If you ever feel like discussing Mumford & Sons more in-depth, let me know.

  2. This is probably the best of the negative reviews on the web, and though I don't agree with it entirely, I think it is an interesting perspective on the smarts and religious inclinations of the band: