Which came first, the fashion for urban 20-year-olds to wear brogues and waistcoats or the success of rustic British pop? It's hard to tell, since a general brownness has been ubiquitous for the past half-decade in a period when British fashion and music have been cross-pollinating to the gain of both. That might help explain why Mumford & Sons have become one of the beleaguered music industry's good news stories.

Certainly, few would have predicted back in 2006 that Mumford banjo player Winston Marshall's raggle-taggle folk night – Bosun's Locker – would give rise to a clutch of well-regarded artists like Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale. And that one of their number – Mumford & Sons – would, by 2012, have sold over 5m copies of their debut album, Sigh No More, snared a Brit, and become, after Adele, the UK's must-have new musical export. In America, roots music is a huge force that rivals the pop economy; the US clasped this wholesome foursome in a particularly enthusiastic bear-hug, out of which popped two Grammy nominations.

As a result, the follow-up album bears a heavy yoke of expectation, one lightened with the sure bet of M&S's constancy. M&S (and it is an unfortunate abbreviation) are not a band who might suddenly recant their acoustic ways and seek out some dubstep fettling. Babel is the logical and effective successor to Sigh No More; an emotive, faintly God-fearing clutch of songs. SNM producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay) reprises his previous role of making the Mumfords sound like a cross between the stomp and clamour of Arcade Fire and Coldplay's brow-furrowed yearning.

Many of these songs – like live favourite Lover of the Light , the banjo-powered lay hymn Whispers in the Dark or the more intriguingly tormented Lover's Eyes – have existed for over 18 months, beaten into studio shape by audience response. It's a sound practice that goes against the grain of most artist management nowadays, which tends to guard new intellectual property closely. Mumford & Sons have rarely been off tour, a laudable dedication to the troubadour's craft which has extended to hosting their own festivals, Gentlemen of the Road. You cannot fault their love for playing out-of-the-way places , their imperative to keep things human-sized and people-powered or their wariness of a rapacious and crass mainstream. You would happily knit your own ale with them.

For all these brownie points, Babel remains an anodyne record, lacking the shivery authority of Laura Marling's work. Folk is a malleable resource, and here it is stripped of all politics or witness-bearing, becoming an exercise in romantic exegesis for nice men with mandolins. Given heft by Biblical references and lifts from novels, Marcus Mumford's internal weather is intriguing, given his past relationship with Marling and, now, marriage to actor Carey Mulligan, and this second album is less over-weeningly jolly than the first, with incursions of electric guitar and drums.

Babel – track and album – aims to rouse. But with rustic indie in general, and here in particular, great emotion is mostly conveyed by strumming very fast or fiddling very hard; it's the musical equivalent of shouting at foreigners and simpletons. With every crescendo of catgut and steel, their lack of nuance becomes wearing.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
What's next for Mumford & Sons?

Why the band's 'indefinite hiatus' could just be the best thing for their careers … and their creativity

Michael Hann

23, Sep, 2013 @3:10 PM

Article image
Jack Garratt; Mumford & Sons – review
This year’s next big thing has shades of Sheeran while the Mumfords evolve beyond homespun

Kitty Empire

13, Dec, 2015 @9:00 AM

Mumford & Sons: Babel – review

Mumford & Sons are vilified as often as praised, and their second album will do little to change that, reckons Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa

20, Sep, 2012 @8:30 PM

Article image
Laura Marling: 'Americans – they're just a lot more poetic'

Singer-songwriter Laura Marling talks to Tom Lamont about lyrics, love, her new album and why she decided to move from London to Los Angeles

Tom Lamont

27, Apr, 2013 @11:04 PM

Article image
Laura Marling: I Speak Because I Can | CD of the week

Folk like Laura are too polite for their own good, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

21, Mar, 2010 @12:05 AM

Article image
Mumford & Sons; Tom Odell – review
The Mumfords' triumphant arena tour caps a phenomenal year, while the sensitive Tom Odell soars, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

16, Dec, 2012 @12:06 AM

Article image
Mumford & Sons: Delta review – three minutes of mild excitement
(Gentlemen of the Road/Island)

Phil Mongredien

18, Nov, 2018 @7:59 AM

Article image
Video exclusive: Mumford & Sons wave goodbye to India

The Mumfords were recently joined in India by Laura Marling for a collaboration with Rajasthani collective the Dharohar Project. Here's what happened ...


08, Jul, 2010 @10:55 AM

Article image
Mumford & Sons announce new album Babel
Indie folkers say their second album, due in September, will have a 'slight flavour of darkness'

Sean Michaels

17, Jul, 2012 @9:59 AM

Article image
Laura Marling interview: 'I've got the confidence now'

At just 21, folk star Laura Marling is already three albums into a career built on furious talent and untempered ambition. She talks to Laura Barton about her new album A Creature I Don't Know

Laura Barton

01, Sep, 2011 @9:00 PM