Mumford & Sons have a lot going for them. Their rise to fame fits in nicely with the commonly loved tale of an underdog finding success. For though their rousing, triumphant debut Sigh No More reached No. 1 in New Zealand, Australia and Ireland, and No. 2 in Britain and America, that popularity was slow-burning and hard-won.
They know how to write a catchy folk song, got producer Markus Dravs (who's worked with Arcade Fire and Coldplay) on board, and they've built their fan base via acclaimed live performances where they come off as the kind of guys it'd be fun to share a beer with.
So perhaps it's not surprising, that though their fans are not hyperventilating tweenagers, their second album looks set to be one of the biggest-selling releases of 2012.
And Babel is pretty much what fans would reasonably expect from their modern folk heroes. Strong vocal harmonies, rootsy strumming, intricate bluegrass phrases, large-scale sweeping melodies, interspersed with the occasional intimate musing. There's minimal drumming or electric guitar this time around, but plenty of banjo and mandolin, a touch more piano, and every now and then, in an especially emotional peak, you can just hear a Coldplay-esque synth or organ.
Literary influences also continue, along with some allegorical styling, and vague references to faith and salvation - though these are always in relation to humanity, rather than specific religion. It's all quite poetic, and there's no denying their talents.
But it's not an especially personal album. It feels like Marcus Mumford is mostly keeping the audience at arm's length, lyrically speaking, wearing his heart under his hat rather than on his sleeve. And unlike the folk heroes of old, there's no politics, no protest, no deep heartbreak, no obvious storytelling.
This isn't an unusual path for modern pop musicians, but Mumford & Sons' particular brand of indie folk needs nuance and fragility, and it's only when they make the most of their dynamic range and remember to dial back the banjos before they turn them up again that the songs connect. Like when they contrast soft vocal refrains on tracks such as I Will Wait and Holland Road, with their loud, frenetic strumming.
And in the tradition of their first hit single Little Lion Man, they're at their strongest on tracks which verge on despair and have a certain rocking abandon to them, like Hopeless Wanderer, which has moments of a sort of folk-psychedelia; and Broken Crown which is full of quiet anger, and yet has a prayer-like pleading to it.
When they let their guard down and find some genuine vulnerability, this quartet prove why they've rallied such a dedicated and large fanbase of adults - they just need to step up the somewhat paint-by-numbers folk pop that can emerge in between the hits.
Verdict: Folk-stars' second album shines when they loosen up, but occasionally feels a little bland.
Buy this album here
- TimeOutBy Lydia Jenkin Email Lydia