You're more likely to hear banjos and dobros on country radio than on alternative stations, but Mumford & Sons, along with likeminded acts such as the Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, and the Felice Brothers, have used their string instruments to lead a folk-music revival in modern rock. With their sophomore album, Babel, Mumford & Sons look to keep that roots-rock revivalism going by sticking to the same formula as their double-platinum, Grammy-endorsed debut, Sigh No More. While the quartet may be perfectly competent musicians, though, their fundamental conservatism plays against them on Babel, making for an album that's entirely too familiar and safe.
Producer Markus Dravs adds little to the band's template that wasn't already established on their debut. But for the looped reverb that opens "Whispers in the Dark" and the full string section on "Lover of the Light," Babel rarely strays from the forcefully performed acoustic rock Mumford & Sons offered on singles such as "Roll Away the Stone" and "The Cave." Such filler as "Ghosts That We Know," "Lovers' Eyes," and "Broken Crown" could be swapped entirely with cuts from Sigh No More without any loss of thematic or stylistic coherence to either album.
There's a leaden quality to the songs here. Compared to a band like Old Crow Medicine Show or Punch Brothers, who use similar sets of instruments, Mumford & Sons' performances are heavy and aggressive rather than nimble or light-handed. Even on uptempo cuts like lead single "I Will Wait" or "Broken Crown," the band sounds like they're fighting against the sluggishness of their own arrangements. The midtempo material that comprises the bulk of the album is weighed down by the ballast of its overwrought and often dreary aesthetic.
Unfortunately, the music is perhaps too well-matched to the band's lyrics, which skew toward the portentous and pontificating. The title track finds frontman Marcus Mumford sounding like he's trying to pass a kidney stone as he wails, "So come down from your mountain and stand where we've been/You know our breath is weak and our bodies thin," creating a great deal of bluster without any specific antecedent. Vaguely religious imagery recurs throughout the album on tracks like "Ghosts That We Know" and "Holland Road," but it's employed so generally that it only approximates significance or importance without having any actual weight behind it.
The songs that stick to straightforward folk conventions and employ believable, first-person details, like "Hopeless Wanderer" and "I Will Wait," fare better and speak to Mumford & Sons' potential to recast traditional folk in a modern context. But much like Sigh No More before it, Babel is just too serious. Too sludgy in their form and trading too much in melodrama and grand but empty gestures, Mumford & Sons aren't the second coming of Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg; they're Creed with a banjo.