A Year of Learning Babel
By the time you read this, Mumford and Sons’ second album, Babel, will have been officially released. If you’re like most Mumford fans, you’ll love it at first listen. If you’re like me, you’ve loved it for quite some time now.
Let’s go back, all the way to August 2011. Jay-Z and Kanye were just about to drop Watch the Throne, and no one saw “Call Me Maybe” coming. It was at this time, while scouring YouTube one night, that I found a song.
I was looking for a change from Sigh No More. It was one of my all-time favorite albums without a doubt, but after the first 400-or-so listens, I needed something different. So I sought out other Mumford tracks, devouring their EPs and their covers and their brief masquerade as a spinoff group called The Wedding Band. But even as I rocked out to hidden gems like The Wedding Band’s “Thumper” and their cut of Vampire Weekend’s “Cousins,” I never expected to stumble upon a new Mumford and Sons song.
And then there was “Home.” It began more wistfully than any Sons song I’d ever come across, the sparse banjo plucking out a melancholy tune heretofore unheard from a band known for its yearning. Marcus Mumford sings his lamentations of a moment left unlived, the rhythm of the guitar urging he go on until the boys are all mourning together. “I’ll be home in a little while / Lover, I’ll be home,” they howl over and over, and I was swept away in it.
Immediately I knew that I had found another favorite, something fresh. When I tried to identify where “Home” came from, though, I met a dead end. It wasn’t on any album of theirs, and it wasn’t a cover. Eventually I figured it out: it was a live recording from back in June, when Mumford and Sons were visiting a Colorado radio station. They were testing out some material, and “Home” was new.
I was ecstatic: a new Mumford and Sons song, and I’d heard it before anyone! The fact that “Home” had been floating around for two months did not dissuade me; I was only now learning to really follow a band. At various points in my life, I had bestowed the title of favorite band upon The Killers, The Shins, and Sum 41, but only Mumford and Sons gave me the compulsion to hunt down every bar of music they played, as soon as they released it.
Much of the next year was spent at concerts I never attended. I started at the iHeartRadio Live Series in New York, where I experienced the crescendo of “Lover’s Eyes.” Then I travelled across the pond to London, where I heard a folk quartet powerfully and effectively integrate an electric guitar in “Below My Feet.” In Nashville, I closed my eyes and took in “Where Are You Now” at the former Grand Ole Opry, struck as much by the poetry as I was by the harmony.
On August 4, 2012, in Portland, Maine, I finally got to see Mumford and Sons in person. This after months subsisting on bootleg recordings, putting one on to lull me to sleep and ultimately staying up to listen for hours; I’d heard as much of Marcus’ voice over the past year as I had of anyone else, though he tended to repeat himself more often. That said, I was nervous about seeing them live after getting to know them so well; would a show I’d seen so many times really be worth the price of admission?
If anything, Portland taught me how little I’d learned from experiencing concerts through camera phone lenses. Every song I heard that night sounded better than it ever had, none more so than “Dust Bowl Dance.” Snarling yet insipid in the recording on Sigh No More, the Sons ooze self-righteous anger as they tear through a shockingly strong instrumental break; you wouldn’t expect a twangy band from West London to generate that kind of brutality.
Seeing “Dust Bowl Dance” made me feel insignificant, like my months of listening had amounted to nothing, but “I Will Wait” reaffirmed my dedication. It would soon become the first single off of Mumford and Sons’ second LP, but for that night, it would simply be the only Sons song I’d see live first.
That’s how I thought it would go, at least. I knew something different was happening when the high-energy banjo introduced the song, and I waited on as the instrumental faded and Marcus stepped to the mike. “Well I came home / Like a stone,” he began, only then I continued along with him: “And I fell heavy into your arms.”
Aside from the chorus, which I nevertheless picked up very quickly, I matched Marcus lyric for lyric. How was it possible for me to recognize a song they were only just beginning to play live? I didn’t remember where I knew the words from until hours later, when I listened to a song called “Nothing is Written” that they were trying out back in 2010. The verses were identical, though the original was a much sleepier tune. Mumford and Sons used their experience on the road to meld those lyrics into a raucous affair, and I was able to follow right along with them.
The early release of “I Will Wait” was key for me, a taste of what was to come. It would be the last new Mumford song I’d hear before September 25, I thought…and then the album leaked. As one of the few remaining music purchasers, an ever-diminishing Mohican-sized group, I had vowed restraint, to cast aside any listening opportunities until the Sons deemed it was time. Alas, I am arguably a Mumford addict and have an unarguably weak constitution when it comes to their music.
After my first run through Babel, the giggling and twitching subsided, and I developed some thoughts. It’s a better album than Sigh No More, played by a band more confident in its experience and its abilities. The builds are more momentous, the payoffs more emotional, the harmonies downright perfection. There might not be a single track on Babel that is on the same level as “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man,” but there might be as many as eight that approach it.
“Home” is not one of those songs. My gateway into the next generation of Sons music doesn’t seem to have made it onto the album in any form. While I still do wish I could hear a studio recording of “Home,” I’ll still have a simple cut from a Colorado radio station. Maybe it’s better that I only have that version; I can only experience the song as I did that first time over a year ago.
On the other hand, there is the mastered track of “I Will Wait,” a very good song but not one of my favorites from Babel. That is more a testament to the other tracks on the album than a shot at “I Will Wait,” but each successive listen just makes me yearn for Portland and that brief spark of revelation.
In that moment, I understood what made Deadheads pick up their lives to follow their band across the country: that ineffable feeling that the musicians and the audience are equal parts of a shared moment of artistic expression, that you and they have created that moment together through symbiosis or sorcery, that they understand how much the music and the crowd and the night mean to you because they feel it, too. The final frontier for a fan, the fourth wall between the music and you, is the road. Two days later, I left Portland; I too had places to go and things to do. On that night, nothing could have been further from my mind. “Raise my hands / Paint my spirit gold,” we sang, and I would have followed them anywhere, from Portland to Providence to Portsmouth and on and on and on.