The music of Mumford & Sons is like the music of That Guy Who Plays Acoustic Guitar At The Party. He picks up the guitar and a half-circle of people forms around him. He croons sensitive tunes and everyone swoons. People may or may not decide to use improvised percussion instruments to accompany him. The party has a warm and rustic epicenter, a chorus of drunk people singing “American Pie” or “Wagon Wheel” at the top of their lungs.
An hour and a half later, the jam is still going. But people start drifting away, sick of the constant jangle of acoustic chords. That Guy Who Plays Acoustic Guitar At The Party is no longer the king he once was.
Of course, Mumford & Sons have a little more style than That Guy. They’ve got a whole army of acoustic: banjos and guitars and piano and probably a lute thrown in there somewhere. They pack the raw power of a thousand That Guys: each track on their albums, both 2010’s Sigh No More and now Babel, chug along like locomotives on the fast track to desert towns.
But that’s the key—Babel sounds pretty much just like Sigh No More. How much that matters depends on whether you naturally take a shine to so-called ‘hipster hoedown’ music. If you liked the banjo-accented folk soap operatics of Sigh No More, Babel will not disappoint: from the religious stomping of the title track (which lead singer Marcus Mumford pronounces like “table” instead of “rabble”) to “Holland Road”s nostalgia, to the slow smoothie tracks with “Lover” in the title, it is very much signature Mumford & Sons.
And why knock them for carving out a signature sound? Put this album on at a party and everyone will know who the band is. Is that so bad? After all, it could be said that the folk bombast on their first album was so extreme in its intentions that it left no room for further innovation. What do we want from Mumford & Sons? Folky prog-rock? An army of guitars like the one Tom Morello was conscripting for Occupy Wall Street? The inclusion of a well-placed theremin?
Right off the bat, the band proved that they knew their stuff that was going to get everyone excited, and now it's clear they must have known that changing the formula would ruin the magic. Screamed vocals about fucking up relationships, huge harmonized choruses, and foot-stomping 6/8 tunes. That’s all they needed. They hit the sweet spot. Now on Babel, they’re hitting it again. Does it make it less sweet? It really depends on your tolerance. For those who never liked That Guy Who Plays Acoustic Guitar At The Party, Babel’s gonna sound like the dentist’s drill. For others, this still may be the point at which you put down your makeshift tambourine, get up from the half-circle and find a better room in the party house.