Album Review: Mumford & Sons’ ‘Babel’ towers over ‘Sigh No More’

Mumford & Sons helped usher in a new acoustic rock movement two years ago with the release of the multi-platinum “Sigh No More.”

Utilizing primarily acoustic instruments such as banjos, mandolins, guitars and upright bass, Mumford & Sons created a ferocious, layered racket on hits like “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” that had more in common with the most urgent rock tunes than folk or bluegrass.

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That same passionate intensity informs “Babel,” the British quartet”s second full-length album, out today. Thoroughly gorgeous and gritty at the same time, the 12 songs on “Babel” build on “Sigh No More”s” solid foundation but reflect the growth that only years of near constant touring and playing together can bring. The band fit in recording sessions during short breaks from the road, which helps account for the vibrant, breathtakingly live feel that permeates much of  “Babel.”

Guitarist/vocalist Marcus Mumford, keyboardist/vocalist Ben Lovett, vocalist/banjoist “Country” Winston Marshall and vocalist/bassist/drummer Ted Dwane all have great command over their instruments. With the help of producer Markus Dravs, they accomplish that rare feat of playing loudly and boisterously (just watch Mumford”s full-bodied strumming when they play live) without ever seeming to cross a boundary into cacophony and then can drop down to the merest whisper of a solitary solo note. While the playing is uniformly strong, Marshall”s banjo playing soars in every song. Normally the happiest of instruments (second only, perhaps, to the ukulele), Marshall manages to wring pathos and anger out of his banjo, especially on “Broken Crown.”

“Babel” opens with an energetic guitar burst, quickly surrounded by other instruments on the title track, with Mumford declaring “I believe in grace and choice,” as the walls of the ancient city come tumbling down. Those two words: “grace” and “choice” recur throughout the album and provide a framework for the collection”s themes of love and death and sin and redemption.

Just as the instruments swirl boldly and brightly together, intermingling only to periodically draw apart, so do the four voices. Mumford”s lead vocals shift easily from caressingly smooth to a gravelly growl to a steely shout, but when surrounded by his bandmates high harmonies, the four voices coalesce into their own uplifting spirit, as on first single, the  rambunctious, western-flavored “I Will Wait.”

Things quiet down briefly around the fifth track, “Ghosts That We Knew.” The mournful song opens with a suicide: “You saw my pain washed out in the rain and broken glass/Saw the blood run from my veins.” It turns into something much more delicately elegant, as a soft banjo bed accompanies Mumford”s stark tale of the ghosts that accompany us through our lives and lighten the way.

Though many of the lyrics on “Babel”s” tracks are fairly elliptical, the characters are often seeped in inexplicable longing and loss. On the title tune, Mumford vows to “Press my nose up to the glass around your heart.”  As the beautiful “Holland Road” opens, the protagonist runs “away in floods of shame.”

To be sure, the lads in M&S are tortured by romantic love, but just as often as not, the fight feels like it”s for something much deeper and no less vital than their mortal soul.

Religious imagery peers through many cuts, just as it did on such “Sigh No More” tracks as “Roll Away Your Stone” or “Thistles & Weeds.” On the dark, bitter “Broken Crown,” Mumford seemingly rails against an ultimately false prophet:  “Crawl on my belly ’til the sun goes down/I”ll never wear your broken crown/i”ll take the rope and I fucked it all away/Now in this twilight/how dare you speak of grace.” On “Whispers In the Dark,” he sings, “Spare my sins for the ark/I was too slow to depart/I”m a cad, but I”m not a fraud/I set out to serve the Lord.”

In lesser hands, some of the lyrics might drown under their own weight, but it”s impossible to sound pretentious backed by a banjo and a mandolin.

Mumford & Sons is the type of “authentic” act that Grammy voters like to rally around and  “Babel” is the type of album that manifests their beliefs that music can be fresh and relevant, while embracing a sense of traditionalism. Expect  “Babel” to tower over the Grammy nominations in December.