The Lumineers have always had a knack for narrative songwriting. Many stunning songs from their self-titled first album, which projected them into the center of the indie music scene in 2012 with the hit single “Ho Hey,” are stories at their core. This theme continued with their second album in 2016, which was partly inspired by an eccentric taxi driver, the titular “Cleopatra,” whose life story had a profound effect on the band’s lead singer Wesley Schultz.
On their third album, cleverly titled “III,” The Lumineers continue their tradition of storytelling on a much more ambitious, personal scale. The concept album tells the story of a family dealing with alcoholism in three distinct acts, each featuring around three songs.
While the Sparks family of the album is fictional, the concept is rooted in the band members’ real-life struggles with cyclical addiction. This is particularly true for lead singer Schultz and drummer Jeremiah Fraites; Schultz was childhood friends with Fraites’ brother who died as a result of his destructive alcoholism. As Fraite explained in an interview with NPR, “With drug addiction or alcoholism it really affects the individual and then it has a sort of fallout effect — similar to the effects of a radiation bomb — over time and over years and years, it continually tends to affect people's loved ones.”
While “III” presents an interesting and personal concept, listeners still might find the album a little gimmicky. Although it is heavy with both emotion and story, it is far from a flawless album. The first chapter of the album’s story deals with Gloria Sparks, the alcoholic matriarch of the Sparks family. Her songs, including “Gloria,” explore how her alcoholism affects the relationship between her and her children: “Gloria, you crawled up on your cross; Gloria, you made us sit and watch; Gloria, no one said enough is enough.”
The second chapter concerns Gloria’s grandson, Junior Sparks. Over the course of his three songs, Junior comes to the bitter realization that he should not be idolizing the members of his family that have fallen into the hands of alcoholism. In the song “Leader of the Landslide,” he describes how Gloria “drank the whole bottle, forgot my name; all I ever wanted was a mother for the first time,” coming to the angry conclusion that “maybe when she's dead and gone I'll get some sleep.”
In the album’s third chapter, the cycle comes full circle: just as Gloria’s alcoholism ruined her relationship with her kids, her son Jimmy lets his alcoholism stand between his relationship with his son, Junior. The album ends with Junior bitterly abandoning his father: “The old man waved his hands with tears in his eyes, but Jimmy's son just sped up… ‘cause it’s me or him.”
While “III,” with its intricate lyrical storytelling, tells a tragic story about how cyclical alcoholism travels through generations, the songs themselves are underwhelming and near indistinguishable from The Lumineers’ previous work. The narrative can be powerful at moments; however, the songs fall flat when divorced from the album’s overarching story. Take, for example, the song “It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy for You,” from the album’s especially shaky second chapter.
There are bands that can really pull off a powerfully bitter breakup song — The Lumineers, however, are definitely not one of those bands. While also not connecting with the overarching narrative and theme, it carries a strange sentiment for what sounds like a lighthearted acoustic number. Considering its tone, lyrics like “I took the poison praying you'd feel it too” and “Wrapped my neck and prayed that you’d feel the noose” might make listeners do a double-take. Isolating a song like this from the rest of the album makes one realize just how disappointing many of the tracks are alone.
Unlike the band’s iconic folk-infused ballad “Ho Hey,” it is unlikely any single song from “III” will be stuck in your head for the next few years. Strangely, no song is particularly memorable between all the rough acoustic riffs and Schultz’s signature raspy vocals. However, The Lumineers’ ambition for “III” is not without any merit — it’s an album of charming, albeit thematically bleak and often forgettable, acoustic tunes.
While built around an interesting concept, the product ultimately leaves more to be wanted. After a more atmospheric sophomore album, any song from “III” would be right at home on The Lumineers’ self-titled debut. While it seems that the band’s artistic progression may have stalled, their new album may be worth checking out — even if only to appreciate a new concept album in an age where they are few and far between.
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