With a lightly fuming tall regular with room for cream, I’ve confidently settled myself at what I call “Christian-Hipster Starbucks” just outside Nashville. Since Thursday, I’ve listened through Mumford and Sons’ Babel about 7 times. Between growing familiarity with the songs and my perch in Music City’s posh, skinny-jeaned evangelical hangout, I feel ready to bust out a review of the second album of a band I started following (you guessed it) before they were cool.
But, a quick glance at other reviews of Babel undercuts my confidence. Expert descriptions of who influenced what mingle with explanations of why this instrument or tempo fails, works, or bores. Three lines in, and the critics have already proven to me that they know best. It’s clear that we speak a different language. Worse – the smart people definitely dislike my dear Mum-mum.
The fact is, I can’t defend Mumford’s Babel in that language. So, I don’t pretend to write a counter-argument, or even a musically informed review. The language I bring to the discussion of Babel is that of the English major, the Christian, the ear-budded elliptical runner.
Babel‘s greatest success is its slower songs, which reveal a T.S. Eliot-like appreciation for painful patience and delayed hope. “Ghosts that We Knew”, despite a somewhat creepy title, expresses a willingness to sit in pain, with only the promise of hope. The speaker begins and ends in a place of suffering requesting, not relief, but instead the knowledge that, one day, there will be relief: “I will hold on as long as you like / Just promise me we’ll be alright.” With its slow rhythm and elegantly simple lyrics, this song captures the moment when pain meets and welcomes both hope and acceptance. Babel‘s “Ghosts that We Knew” will remain a go-to song in my playlists for many years.
While “Ghosts” hands the patience necessary to get through pain, “Reminder”, the song of which learned critics actually approve, explores the patience necessary in daily life. The song’s description of journeying: “And your light’s always shining on / And I’ve been travelling oh so long / I’ve been travelling oh so long” echoes the weariness of the long path of life found in the poetry of George Herbert (“Death would be fair / and but a chair”) and Christina Rossetti (“Will there be beds for me, and all who seek? / Yay, beds for all who come”). The feeling of a life’s long-delayed arrival has always resonated strongly with me. While “Reminder” refers to lost (or delayed?) love, I can’t help hearing overtones of a longer journey and a longer delay.
Most of the faster songs on the album feel less distinctive to me. “Babel”, “Holland Road”, and “I Will Wait” burst with banjos and the feeling of caffeine plus treadmill. I don’t believe “I Will Wait”‘s request to “Keep my heart slow” in the way I believe the album’s mellow songs about patience. These hasty songs are fun to listen to, run to, dance to. But, they are not Mumford’s best.
“Broken Crown” is the notable exception to the fast-paced rule of the album, with deeper, more thoughtful lyrics. For myself, it is to Babel what “Little Lion Man” was to Sigh No More; the most repeat value, the most complexity, and the most profanity. It’s more than a little dark, and, although it’s clearly trying hard to be edgy, I think it’s succeeding.
Even in the tracks where this album fails, it remains fun. Where it succeeds, it gives contemporary voice to the sentiment of T.S. Eliot’s line from the Four Quartets, “I said to my soul be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. And wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing. There is yet faith, but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.”