The folk-rock band The Lumineers are known for their ability to tell a story within an album. Listening to their discography can often feel like a trip back in time, with lead vocalist Wesley Schultz playing the role of part-railway conductor ghost and part-grandfather telling a story about a girl he once knew. The band’s latest album “III,” released Sept. 13, is no exception.
Some may find the sound a bit repetitive — even lyrics reappear from tracks like “Sleep On The Floor” and “Cleopatra” off of their last album. “Gloria” starts off with eerily familiar percussion and strings to “Cleopatra” as well. But while the acoustic-folk chants and harmonies have always been a dependable and pleasant constant of The Lumineers discography, it’s their poeticism and attention to narrative that truly sets them apart from other contemporary folk artists.
Three years after releasing “Cleopatra,” one of the two founding members of the band, Jeremiah Fraites said of “III” in the album’s Spotify description, “This collection of songs worked out in a beautiful way, and I feel with this album we’ve really hit our stride.”
The Lumineers do not create an album that can just be listened to passively — it is meant to tell a story that must be studied. That being said, each song can stand alone as a narrative moment. You do not necessarily have to listen to the album in its entirety to catch a glimpse of the entire story that “III” tells. Whether or not you will be able to stop after just one song though, is another question.
Picking a single Lumineers song out of their entire collection is akin to picking a random book from the library, only to find it is one of a monumental series that will whisk you away to a world of fantasy. Only, the fantasy The Lumineers tend to portray revolves around the intricacies of a working class family. In “Cleopatra” we saw the lives of a taxi driver, a couple aching to run away and start a new life far away from home, and an unhappy wife. In “III,” the story is darker, but closer to home not only for many working class families, but for the founding band members as well.
Broken into three chapters, “III” tells the story of the fictitious Sparks family and their struggle dealing with the beginnings and aftermath of addiction. Gloria — the alcoholic matriarch — Junior, her grandson and victim of parental abuse and Jimmy Sparks, her hardened son who suffers from abandonment issues. They all have their own chapter of the album split between the first ten tracks —”Donna,” “Life In The City” and “Gloria” for Gloria, “It Wasn’t Easy To Be Happy For You,” “Leader Of The Landslide,” and “Left For Denver” for Junior, and “My Cell,” “Jimmy Sparks,” “April” and “Salt And The Sea” for Jimmy. But in reality it is not just the Sparks family’s story the band is telling.
Schultz — founding member, guitarist and vocalist — has a personal relationship with addiction and does not shy away from discussing it. In their Spotify session, the writer and musician noted that the album, and specifically “Gloria,” the first single, “was inspired by a member of my family, and no amount of love or resources could save her. She’s now been homeless for over a year. Loving an addict is like standing among the crashing waves, trying to bend the will of the sea.”
The album deals with its discussion of addiction firmly, with the frustrated voices of people who have been through the motions time and time again. Lines from “Gloria” like “Gloria, there’s easier ways to die” and from “Donna” — “You couldn’t sober up to hold a baby” — make this clear. These are words that seem to have been said in pure aggravation, but here are set to gentle scales on a haunting, echoing piano — as if being played in an empty house. Tracks like “Leader Of The Landslide” and “Life In The City” are easy to tap along, harmonize and dance with, but jarring when you hear the lyrics you are actually enjoying.
Not only did The Lumineers create a stunning auditory masterpiece, they also managed to translate each of the ten tracks illustrating the Sparks family visually as well. The story of the Sparks family evolved into a short film, also called “III” that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2019. It follows the same story of the album, but with the visuals to go along with the music — an old farmhouse in upstate N.Y., a family grave plot and even the stunning escape from one’s hometown and into the fast and gritty life of a big city.
Parts one through ten of the short film can be found on The Lumineers’ YouTube channel and truly supplement the listening experience of the album. The cinematic aspect of The Lumineers’ work is not unique to “III”, each of their music videos comes with indie-movie-esque attention to detail and a storyline that truly brings life to a song, especially for those who struggle with dissecting meaning solely from the lyrics.
Touring the album ought to be interesting given the dark and haunting subject matter, but given The Lumineers penchant for stunning visuals, there’s no doubt their concert in Charlottesville at the John Paul Jones Arena will be a hit in February. What do you need to do to prepare for their “III” world tour? Settle in, grab a box of tissues and listen to “III” from start to finish, then do it two more times.
The Lumineers will be playing at John Paul Jones Arena on Feb. 16, 2020. Ticket information is available at johnpauljonesarena.com.