Ten days, ten albums. No particular order -- hey, it was hard enough whittling it down to ten!
Mumford & Sons: Babel
I loved it when Ray Davies started doing bluegrass and country music on Muswell Hillbillies, so I'm naturally a sucker for the Mumfords. What's not to love when hipster indie Brits forge their own peculiar Americana sound, full of banjo and acoustic guitars and Salvation Army brass? They're like O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Martin Amis, full of post-modern angst and old-time religion.
Just to prove that 2009's Sigh No More wasn't a fluke, here comes their wonderful new album Babel. And -- because this is what I do -- here's one track to hook you in.
Remember that old song"The Happy Wanderer"? (Fal-de-ree, fal-da-ra, fal-de-ree, fal-da-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha). This tune is its flip side, trading in jaunty optimism for desperate passion.
It's a sort of love song, I guess, as the singer clings wildly to the person who has redeemed his sorry soul: "You heard my voice / I came out of the woods by choice" and, later, "you brought me out from the cold." "Now, how I long to grow old" he adds, giddy with the idea that he actually has something worth growing old for.
But we've left Simplistic Pop Love Songs soooooo far behind. He's not looking for easy answers -- in fact, he wants the complexities to remain. "So leave that click in my head," he begs in the tentatively loping first verse. "The words that you said / Left a clouded mind and a heavy heart," he says, adding, "But I was sure we could see a new start." Ah, new starts -- the eternal promise of pop music. But the lyrics are barely out of his mouth before he's dragged down again. In the second verse, he admits, "I wrestled long with my youth" and "When I lose my head, I lose my spine." This is one conflicted guy -- you gotta admire the chick who can solve his head games.
The Indie Songwriter's Handbook requires this kind of anti-hero angst, but I have to say, Marcus Mumford pulls it off convincingly. As he charges into the fiercer energy of the chorus, he pleads with real conviction, "Hold me fast, / Hold me fast / Cause I'm a hopeless wanderer."The little ragged edge to his lead vocal makes it even more poignant, as he flails against the mounting scrum of acoustic guitar and banjo. (Who said that acoustic instruments couldn't rise to the grandeur of rock?) Of course the Anglophile fangirl in me adores the broad A of that oft-repeated "hold me fast." It's the sexiest thing in this song, kinda like the "I really fooked it up this time" line in "Little Lion Man" from the Mumfords first album. Those are the peculiarly Mumfordian touches that endear this song to me.
There's a reckless romanticism to this chorus, the tempo veering almost out of control, the acoustic instruments scrabbling wildly to keep up. He knows he's a guy who sometimes flies off the deep end. That's why he needs a lover who will keep him grounded, a steadfast lover who's just as intrigued by the clicks in his head as by his more obvious attributes. Isn't that what "for better, for worse" is all about?
In the final chorus, he vows "I will learn, / I will learn / To love the skies I'm under." I'm not one-hundred-percent buying that. Listen to the weary flogging beat of "skies I'm un-der" -- this guy still isn't sure he can do it. But with her help, he's gonna try. And if that ain't love . . .