The Lumineers’ ‘III’ Tells a Tragic Tale of Three Generations
The Lumineers are among the most distinctive bands to achieve massive success and acclaim in the folk rock / Americana revival that swept the nation over the last decade. While lazy comparisons to the likes of Mumford & Sons have often been leveled at them, their music has stood out for its relative minimalism. In a genre already defined largely by stripped-down arrangements, the band especially embraces simplicity, their songs deriving their power from streamlined directness and storytelling craft. Their third album, simply titled “III,” continues in this tradition but veers far from the comparatively jokey fare of early hits like “Ho Hey” of off their 2012 self-titled debut. The group has evolved to become considerably darker, with much of their 2016 follow up, “Cleopatra,” inspired by anecdotes of personal tragedy. The band’s latest effort takes this to a bold new level. Split into three distinct chapters, with three songs each, along with an additional instrumental piece in the last set, it tells a story of life and loss, through a story covering three generations of a family. Interestingly, the isolated independent songs predated the concept of a narrative ark, but share enough sentiment to make the adopted structure work marvelously. The new songs are characteristically light and musically uncluttered, yet weighty and dramatic in content, and overall an imaginative breakthrough.
From the first moments of opener “Donna,” it seems the Lumineers might have taken their focus on simplicity a bit too far, with the opening melody merely running up and down a scale. Soon, however, the lyrics provide context, and it becomes apparent Fraites is playing a snowglobe-type lullaby, as we are introduced to character born into a troubled family. Shultz pieces together the narrative cryptically, forcing the listener to slowly put together the parts. Lyrics like “You hate the name Junior,” “You hate the name Donna,” and “You couldn’t sober up to hold a baby,” directly addressing the eponymous figure, and revealing scattered family details, give way to an ending in which an image of an embittered alcoholic wishes she could end her existence. The verses alternate time signatures with unfettered folk fluidity, and the song builds to an emotive climax.
The chapter continues with “Life in the City,” building momentum with stops and starts, and taking up a rather cheery tune, as our character Donna makes her way to New York, and ends up in debauchs. Then “Gloria,” an ideal single, introduces us to Donna’s mother and her struggles with substance abuse, with a catchy, rather triumphant tune that belies the gravity of the subject matter. The Lumineers are known to be fans of Springsteen, and there are similarities to the melody of “Dancing In the Dark” that make their way into the song, along with some comical, grunting backing vocals, and flamboyant piano bits.
The second chapter zeroes in on the aforementioned character Junior in the aftermath of a breakup, with the catchy “It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy For You.” In “Leader of the Landslide,” his mother has left the family, and his father Jimmy is descending into alcoholism. Lines like “Is she dead, is she fine?” seem designedly open-ended, as they could apply equally to Junior’s mother, girlfriend, or grandmother Gloria. The drama continues, and by the point of “Left For Denver,” Junior has moved with his mother, and is getting into all types of trouble, in the long family tradition. Shultz sings his lyrics almost absurdly calmly, hinting at a defeated, passive acceptance of circumstance.
Sounds grow more deranged on “My Cell,” with Shultz singing slightly off key at moments, capturing the increasing deterioration of Junior’s father Jimmy, who lives alone in a trailer. A climactic moment comes with the repeated line, “My pretty little cell,” by which point the whole tale has started to become very vivid. Then, standout track “Jimmy Sparks” pans out to fill in gaps in the story, tracing us through the titular character’s early struggles with gambling to his ending up destitute on the street. “April,” an unassuming instrumental piano piece, provides some well-timed variety, and adds a little space for reflection. Finally, “Salt and the Sea,” a song originally written for an M. Night Shyamalan film but not making the movie, brings the story to a close. Featuring a whimsical, slightly otherworldly piano bit, it provides a final afterthought on the struggles that have plagued the family over generations.
“III” goes above and beyond anything the Lumineers have done before. The unique concept and structure of the album have inspired songs that lift the band’s songcraft into a new plane. And the indirect narrative development, full of frameshifts, temporal jumps, and ambiguous intimations make for an especially engaging experience, as it leaves the task of unraveling the story up to the listener. Musically, Shultz and Fraites have never been particularly versatile, and the new songs are no real exception. Shultz has fashioned a voice for himself from Bob Dylan’s vocal idiosyncrasies and other assorted folk signifiers, and based most of his career belting away in a phrasing that fits. The instrumentation continues to be sparse, which the band considers an attribute, and it allows little flashier touches like Fraites’ short smattering of piano sections especially powerful. Above all, every song here is both catchy and dramatic, making for an inspired and engaging album overall.
“III” is available Sept. 13 on Apple Music.