London’s multimillion-selling troubadours Mumford & Sons are perhaps best known in the States for their appearance alongside Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammy Awards, suggesting a tenuous connection with the Man himself. In reality, they hark back to a strain of commercial folk music that predates Dylan’s anarchic reinvention of the genre. Mumford & Sons’ true progenitors are bands such as the Kingston Trio and New Christy Minstrels, whose wax museum regurgitations of old forms eschewed the more challenging and frightening elements of their chosen idiom. Like those previous acts, Mumford & Sons seem determined to streamline folk traditions into a highly palatable and unthreatening wash, wherein upscale audiences who enjoy the “authentic” feel of pickin’ and grinnin’ are spared the levels of existential hell manifested by, say, Lead Belly.
On their new record, “Babel,” Mumford & Sons sound highly assured in their approach, a quality that would normally serve a band in good stead, but here, such conviction feels misguided. Much like his peers in Dawes or the Lumineers, frontman Marcus Mumford experiences subtlety as an allergy and expresses his every heartfelt whim with a deep-throated evangelism that belies the extraordinary banality of his lyrics. On the opening title track, Mumford emotes, “Press my nose up to the glass around your heart,” which is both nonsensical and a little creepy. On balance, “Babel” is tedious and repetitive in the extreme, resolving time and again to the same acoustic guitar, banjo and drums-driven buildup that feels ineffectual either as folk music or indie rock. Almost without exception (the brief “Reminder” at least temporarily tamps down the melodrama), this is inessential music best suited for the culminating scenes of rom-coms or the occasional cellphone commercial.