U.K. quartet Mumford & Sons emerged from London a few years ago with banjos blazing. Their 2009 debut, “Sigh No More,” ended up selling more than 2 million copies and ushered in a hootenanny-style folk-rock wave, which includes bands such as the Head and the Heart and the Lumineers. Last year, they backed Bob Dylan at the Grammy Awards.
The follow-up album, “Babel” (Gentlemen of the Road/Glassnote), is projected to go gold (at least 500,000 sales) in its first week, a rare rock-band commercial success story in an era dominated by pop, R&B and hip-hop. Yet the music of Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane has a tendency to drive many music critics nuts; they call the band out for their shallow roots and folkie pretensions. But those criticisms miss the point.
Mumford & Sons aren’t really interested in any sort of folk revivalism. They actually have a lot more in common with contemporary arena performers, especially the post-Garth Brooks wave of country artists. Mumford & Sons is to folk music as Kenny Chesney, say, is to honky tonk: They’ve adopted and adapted some of each genre’s signifiers (the vests, rolled-up sleeves and banjos of folk and bluegrass for Mumford, the cowboy hats and steel guitars of country for Chesney), removed some of the darker, grittier subtleties, and put it all into evangelical overdrive so that it sounds uplifting and triumphant in a stadium full of revelers.
There’s nothing wrong with a rousing sing-along among 25,000 of your closest friends. The real issue with Mumford & Sons is its pedestrian songwriting and predictable delivery. The singing veers between a strained roar and a whisper, and the music shares a similar loud-quiet-loud dynamic that becomes repetitive. They bash away on mandolins, fiddles and dobros like a string band on steroids; you can practically hear the strings snap and the veins pop in the overheated title track, “Hopeless Wanderer,” and “I Will Wait.” It’s almost a relief when the two-minute “Reminder” arrives two-thirds into the album, a short, quiet, late-night respite from the assault.
References to blood, heartbreak, sin and redemption fill the album. They’re treated in the abstract, emblems of biblical import that don’t really say or reveal much of anything (“Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride/I stretch my arms into the sky”; “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light”; “These days of dust, which we’ve known/Will blow away with this new sun”). The band pays lip service to the idea of keeping things earthy and organic, and therefore somehow more sincere or heartfelt. But they wash out the gritty details, and their broad, universal images resonate only as fist-pumping bumper-stickers rather than as messy, human vulnerability.
But then, these aren’t songs designed to be appreciated through a cell phone, car speaker or home stereo. They’re meant to be heard in the third balcony of a hockey arena.