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The fall of Babel

Nusa Bartol-Bibb

Mumford & Sons
Island Records
24 September 2012









As Mumford & Sons prepare to hit the road on a transatlantic tour, sent on their way with three Brit Award nominations, there is perhaps no better time to reflect on the music which has produced such a harmonious chorus of praise on both sides of the pond. Their second studio album Babel went straight to number one in the unconquerable States last October, and has recently earned Marcus Mumford and co. another batch of Brit Award nominations back home. The quartet are in the running to win British Live Act, British Group, and the Mastercard British Album of the Year. The first nomination is not at all surprising. Thanks to their technical mastery and minimal reliance on audio post production, the difference in quality between their studio recordings and the music they produce in the flesh is almost imperceptible. This makes Mumford & Sons a live act of a calibre unrivalled on the stages of the festival circuit and fully worthy of the Brit award.

The title of British Group is a harder sell. Nevertheless, were they to win, it would have a pleasing double resonance, proclaiming their music’s brilliance and reminding us coincidentally of its quintessential Britishness. Mumford & Sons have taken up the mantle of a quietly enduring national folk tradition and brought it back into vogue, rummaging through the pages of British literature to embroider their folk music with lyrics alluding to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘Stars, hide your fires’) and Much Ado About Nothing (‘Man is a giddy thing’). But while their status as a British Group may be quite safe, their eligibility to win an award really concerned with the best British group is less clear. Nevertheless, they are far better suited to the title of British Group than Babel is suited to the title of Mastercard British Album of the Year 2013.

In itself, the record is perfectly listenable, harbouring moments of almost transcendental beauty in the powerful verbal economy of lines like ‘Well you forgave, and I won’t forget’ (I Will Wait) or the moments of silence which punctuate the heady instrumental frolicking of Lovers’ Eyes. But when considered in the broader context of the band’s life, it is something of a disappointment. It does not deserve to be the British Album of the Year 2013 because it is not an album of 2013: it is an album of 2009. For all the group’s insistence of the American flavour of this latest offering, not a single song would sound out of place on Sigh No More. Like the city of legend, this Babel ultimately fails. Yet whereas the original Babel was plagued by a confusion of tongues, the Babel of Mumford & Sons fails due to the absence of any new voices. A solitary voice speaks the same Dantean language of lost love and cosmic truth as in Sigh No More, saying nothing new as a banjo plays out the tune of a different time.

Nusa Bartol-Bibb is reading for a BA in English Literature at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.