Album Review: The Lumineers’ third outing, helpfully titled III, finds the songwriting duo of Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites attempting to take their folk-song storytelling up a notch. The band’s long-time member Neyla Pekarek, who played cello and sang backing vocals, left the band last year. Like novelists, “III” consists of three distinct chapters that tell the story of the three generations of a family that struggles with addiction. For a band that rose to popularity on the novelty appeal of their first single, “Ho Hey,” this darker turn and the effort to create a compelling narrative is certainly worthy of interest.
The album and first song, “Donna,” opens with a simple piano line, which sounds vaguely familiar, like a simple scale exercise a pianist uses to warm up before taking on something harder. That sense of a beginner returns in the brief instrumental “April” that concludes the third chapter, which Fraites says was something he had conceived a decade earlier, when he was just beginning to learn to play the piano. Curiously, part of the appeal of The Lumineers’ songs is that elemental simplicity, the stripped down and intimacy of a simple chord progression on an acoustic guitar, a basic piano run, that and the high, soaring plaintive vocal howl of Schultz that defines the often compelling sing-along melodies of their biggest singles, like “Ophelia” and the title track from the band’s sophomore album Cleopatra, and “Gloria” from this one. Plus, they have a thing for women’s names that end in “aahh.”
As Schultz and Fraites’ story unfolds, Gloria falls prey to her alcoholism, a sad story that belies the upbeat melody of the song which tells her tale, while “Life In the City,” describes her daughter’s night on the town where she imitates her mother. The second chapter begins with the album’s second single, “It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy for You,” where Gloria’s son Jimmy Sparks’ marriage comes apart, leaving him to care for their infant son, Junior. The song “Jimmy Sparks” provides the narrative’s climax with a dark twist on the moral of “Cat’s In the Cradle,” where the toddler son who’s father carting him off to sit at the bar in casino’s but warned never to pick up hitchhikers, grows up to see his drunk barefooted father with his thumb out alongside the road, and drives on past him. Yeah, that’s some dark shit.
And that darkness is carried mostly in tracks like “Leader of the Landslide,” “Left For Denver” and “My Cell” which make up the center section of the record, and here the musical setting is more in tune with the lyrical tone of the tale. While Schultz’ haunted wale in the band’s big singles is what hooks you, on these tracks, especially when the lyrics repeat to the point of redundancy, and turns to a whine in “My Cell,” it begins to grow less appealing. The album closes with an unrelated story song, “Salt and the Sea,” that manages to maintain that dark emotional vibe, where “I let the darkness swallow me whole.”
Clearly, Lumineers’ fans find the band’s stripped back approach allows for a real connection, more intimacy, but three albums in you’d expect a bit more development and progression. There’s no doubt, fans of the band’s self-title debut and Cleopatra will find plenty to appreciate about III, but if they want to develop a larger following, one suspects they’re going to need to take the music to a new, perhaps brighter, fresher place.
Key Tracks: “Gloria” / “It Wasn’t Easy To Be Happy For You” / “Jimmy Sparks”
Artists With Similar Fire: The Head & The Heart / Justin Townes Earle / Mumford & Sons
The Lumineers Website
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Dualtone Music Group
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb