The Lumineers finished their third studio album, III, last September. The first ten tracks on the album follow the fictional Sparks family across three generations. At the beginning of the summer, The Lumineers began releasing the songs one at a time, followed by music videos that illustrated the piece of the family history told in each song. Notably, the short film created from those music videos premiered at TIFF a few weeks ago, and all told, the videos do add a little extra to the album to help illustrate the story the band is trying to tell about the Sparks family.
Ultimately, the villain the three Sparks face is addiction, handed down from the grandmother Gloria to her son Jimmy, and which haunts Junior, the grandson. It tears the family apart, and as each track is fitted into the family’s puzzle, the tone turns darker. Even as Gloria’s section laments her alcoholism and addiction, it remains lighthearted. In stark contrast, Jimmy’s section, which ties up the narrative, is completely devoid of hope, and almost completely different tonally. Juniors section, sandwiched between the two, has a passive sort of feel. Not as dark as Jimmy’s, but not as light as Gloria’s, it highlights Junior as a bystander in all of this and passes over listeners that threaten rain without ever bringing any thunder.
I love a good non-traditional narrative structure, and the idea behind III caught my attention as soon as I heard about it. The story is intensely personal to The Lumineers, as lead singer Wesley Schultz has stated that the Spark’s story is in part inspired family members who struggle with alcoholism and the consequences that has brought into their lives. In a nation at grips with the opioid crisis, III’s commentary on how addiction can destroy a family is sure to strike chords with listeners across the country as well.
But when the Spark’s story comes to an end, and the album abruptly shifts to the three “bonus” songs tacked on the end (“Democracy,” “Old Lady,” and “Soundtrack Song”) I couldn’t help but wonder what we had been left with. Somehow, the album just felt…lackluster. Interesting, sure, but not really something that I immediately wanted to go back and listen to again. Have you ever seen the gif of Kermit the Frog and Christian Bale nodding at each other? That’s what this album feels like at the end.
Which isn’t to say that individually the songs aren’t good; The Lumineers prove with III once again that they’re master songwriters. They’re just not master storytellers, and for an album like III that focuses so heavily on narrative, there needs to be more of a story to tie it all together. What’s offered in III is a series of vignettes focusing on three different family members (with a shifting narrator to boot, which actively made the story feel weaker, not stronger). It’s not a bad thing. I just don’t think it delivers on what The Lumineers attempted to bill it as.
When I listen to III, or when it crosses my mind, a few songs get stuck in my head and I’ll turn them on to listen to them. Maybe I’ll play them again, but I feel no obligation to go back to the beginning of the album and listen all the way through again, or listen to another track. Each song is beautifully crafted. “April” stands apart as a gorgeous instrumental that bleeds into “Salt and the Sea,” and “Life in the City” gives fans familiar with singles off the last album, Cleopatra, a little thrill with a cameo verse borrowed from the bridge of “Sleep on the Floor.” On a lyrical level, each track in the Sparks section is essentially poetry set to music. Musically, it’s the same Lumineers sound we’re all familiar with, although “Salt and the Sea” almost matches a Bond theme for tone.
I’ve been trying to piece out what exactly makes this album feels like an “almost” instead of the full-out masterpiece it should be. After a few days mulling it over and talking about it with friends, I think it’s a combination of a couple different things.
First, the bonus tracks distract from the story that the album is trying to tell in the Sparks section. “Democracy” is culturally relevant, but seems to be trying too hard to add meaning to an album that should find that meaning on its own. I have no idea what the purpose of “Old Lady” is, besides that maybe it’s a reject from Junior’s section, and really I just wish it hadn’t been included. “Soundtrack Song,” is the real disappointment, though. It’s tonally different from every other song on the album, and seems to be telling a story completely separate from the Sparks. Really, it should have just been left out. It’s not a strong song, and it’s especially not a strong way to end the album as a whole.
Second, the shifting narrator in the Sparks section makes it hard to keep track of the story, who’s speaking, who they’re speaking to, etc. While undoubtedly “Jimmy Sparks” and “My Cell” benefit from the way they’re written, narration in “Donna” and “Left for Denver” left me confused about who the lyrics are supposed to be referring to, even if the songs still work pretty well musically.
Third, and finally, the album doesn’t really add anything to the conversation it wants to be adding to. There are no great revelations about addiction in the story of the Sparks family, and “Democracy” just comes off as a weak attempt criticizing the current political climate in the United States. III presents a unique idea, but doesn’t capitalize on it to the extent that it could be, and it’s disappointing as a result.
In the long run, The Lumineers method of releasing the album and their way of telling the story may influence artists in interesting and meaningful ways in the future. As of right now, though, it remains a half-baked, well-intentioned attempt, which means that even if I mostly like the album, I don’t really love it. This especially is the real shame for me, considering that all the components necessary to make a great album are theoretically present in III, but not capitalized on to the extent they could be.
Top Songs: “Life in the City,” “Gloria,” and “Salt and the Sea”