The Lumineers and the art of somber storytelling


Photo by Telegram & Gazette from Tribune News Service.

Brenna Flanagan, Lifestyles Editor

America’s favorite folk-rock group, The Lumineers, are back on the release of their third album, “III,” keeping theme with the short album titles. The band’s past two albums have both been hits with listeners, producing songs like “Ho Hey” and “Ophelia” that are perfect for belting at the top of your lungs with the windows down. The Lumineers have this special quality of being able to produce the kind of songs above and make them popular radio favorites, but without them being annoying, overplayed or shallow. That is why the band has a good deal of pressure every time they release an albumfans expect that same folk sensation that both reminds them of the past but also promises to keep returning in the future. 

“III” delivers, but not in the same way that The Lumineers’ first two albums did. There are a few things that set this album apart from its predecessors, the biggest being that this album commits itself as a concept album that tells a multi-generational story about substance abuse based on many of the band members’ experiences with addiction. This album is the most topical of all three albums, trading vintage lines for a story about current issues in America – substance abuse, the changing idea of family and eroding democracy. 

The Lumineers have played with this idea of song interconnectedness before, with their affiliated songs and music videos for “Sleep on the Floor,” “Angela” and “Cleopatra” from their second album. This time though, the whole album, aside from the bonus tracks, is dedicated to the story of Gloria, Junior and Jimmy Sparks, complete with a music video series for the entire album, which was included in the Toronto Film Festival. 

The album is split into three parts, the first part being songs about Gloria Sparks, a young mother nursing a new baby and an alcohol addiction. “Donna” is about Gloria’s relationship with her mother and “Life in the City,” reminiscent of first album melodies, is about Gloria’s escape to the city, where she mixes alcohol with cocaine and cheats on her husband. This song adds a connection even outside the album, the ending lines harking back to their second album’s “Sleep on the Floor.” If you are looking for something upbeat and on-brand, “Gloria” will be as close as you get. Despite the song’s buoyant sound, the lyrics describe someone confronting Gloria about her addiction. This song represents the high that comes with substance abuse—on the surface, it looks thrilling but when you peel back the layers the act is profoundly miserable to the addict and the people around them. 

The next part of the album follows Junior Sparks, Gloria’s grandson as he gets his heart broken, realizes his alcoholic father will drive him away like he did his mother and ultimately decides to leave all of that behind. These songs are more stripped down than other parts of the album, often just an acoustic guitar and the wailing lyrics of Schulz, maybe to show the gloomy youth of Junior. 

The final part follows Junior’s father and Gloria’s son, Jimmy Sparks. “My Cell” leaves much of the storytelling to the music instead of the lyrics, which remain barren and repetitive but describe the depression and sorrow of Jimmy’s life. The next song, titled “Jimmy Sparks,” details Jimmy’s life and how he raised his son to never pick up hitchhikers because “it’s us or them.” By the end of the song, Jimmy’s son is old enough to drive and sees his father hitchhiking one night, but passes right by him, still remembering the lesson he was raised on. These songs are the most potent and dramatic, using the cello and piano to increase the feeling of uneasiness. “Jimmy Sparks” acts as the climax of the album, as the last song “Salt and the Sea” returns to the acoustic sound.  

These songs are not easy listening, in part because they are depressing but also because they are cinematic in nature. They are supposed to make you feel anxious, somber and ponderous. Because of their sound, they make more sense when watching the videos than when you hear them alone, however, you do not need the videos to understand and appreciate the story of “III.” The videos just support a vision that fans always imagine when listening to The Lumineers; Americana melodies meet the gritty, tough and bleak Americana life.  

The songs in this album probably will not be everyone’s favorites and that is okay. The album was not meant to instantly reward listeners with foot-stomping beats and stock lyrics that sound good together; it was supposed to tell a story more than anything. That is something The Lumineers have always strived to do, and their fans seem to crave that authenticity more than another hit song. “III” requires patience and a willingness to let the songs grow on you, but when you do, you get to experience a truly thoughtful experience that fills a void in modern music.