It's hard to imagine a more preposterous road to platinum success than the one Mumford & Sons traveled. Sigh No More, the 2010 debut by Marcus Mumford and his London crew, is a set of rousing tunes clad in choirboy harmonies, clawhammer banjo and Salvation Army brass that exploded amid a sea of AutoTuned cyber-pop. Soon, the band was backing Dylan on the Grammys, recording Kinks classics with Ray Davies and uncannily recalling the days when string bands like the Carter Family and the Louvin Brothers were radio gold.
Babel steps up Mumford & Sons' game without changing it too much. It feels shinier, punchier, more arena-scale than the debut, with the band hollering, hooting, plucking and strumming like Olympian street buskers. The songs lean toward the hooky folkfest stomps of tunes such as "Little Lion Man" and "The Cave," whose beer-slosh melody and fist-pump dynamics branded Sigh No More. See Babel's hymnlike first single, "I Will Wait," and "Lover of the Light" – both are proof that the Mumfords do dramatic builds, dropouts and soft-loud shifts as impressively as U2 or Skrillex. The fact that these guys are able to do big rock catharsis with humble tools is part of the thrill.
But it's the band's lyrics, and Mumford's delivery, that define the album's sound. Babel is full of all manner of religious shoptalk, with Biblical metaphors swirling like detritus in a Christopher Nolan film. Jesus is invoked above Edge-style guitar on "Below My Feet." On "Whispers in the Dark," Mumford declares an intention "to serve the Lord" over a Riverdance bounce. Compared to unfreaky-folk-revival peers like the Avett Brothers or the Low Anthem, Mumford & Sons really double down on the ol' time religion.
Mumford grew up around evangelicals - his parents are English figureheads of The Vineyard, a California-born Christian movement that's so pop-savvy, they run a couple of record labels. (Bob Dylan was a member of the fellowship during his Christian phase in the Seventies.) But proselytizing is not the mission on Babel. Where Rick Ross slings church flavor to add levity to street tales, Mumford uses it to supersize and complicate love songs. "Lovers' Eyes" is merely the best of several songs that wrestle with betrayer's guilt. On "Broken Crown" he seems both sinner and sinned against. "The pull on my flesh was just too strong," he cries with moving hair-shirt candor. Disgraced politicians could learn something from this dude.
Colored with brass, group vocals and Ben Lovett's understated piano, "Lovers' Eyes" and "Broken Crown" (which, like "Little Lion Man," makes showstopping use of the word "fucked") show the subtler and more British folk elements that marked the group's debut. Those flavors get toned down on this record, which is too bad. But the power of the arrangements and Marcus Mumford's tortured-vicar vocals is undeniable. And if his conflation of love, lust and Christian spirituality sounds more like pre-dawn confusion than neat Bible lessons, it feels all the truer for it. His parents should be proud.
Listen to "I Will Wait":