The Lumineers’ third album III, is an exploration of addiction and it is the folk-rock band’s most ambitious project yet. Through music and visuals, it traces the narrative of three generations of the fictional Sparks family and its struggles with drug abuse and alcoholism. III is also a deeply personal work, as the characters in the album are based in part on members of lead vocalist Wesley Schultz’s own family. The album is enhanced by a short film composed of ten music videos depicting the Sparks family’s story. The film is dark and graphically violent; Wesley’s vocals, accompanied by sparse piano and guitar are at turns angry and melancholic. This is an album that is unrelenting in its heartbreak and at times blindly focused on narrative.
Part of what is so unconventional about the album is its strong narrative thread; III is an album that must be listened to in order. It is organized into three chapters: “Gloria Sparks”, “Junior Sparks” and “Jimmy Sparks”. Gloria is Jimmy’s mother and Junior is Jimmy’s son. The focus of each of these songs, as well as the accompanying videos, is the way that addiction, specifically alcoholism, can destroy a family. In the video for ‘Gloria’, Gloria drinks straight from the bottle while an infant Jimmy looks on. Later, in ‘Leader of the Landslide’ Jimmy spikes his morning coffee while Junior watches disapprovingly. There are several nice moments of symmetry throughout the videos that suggest the cyclical nature of addiction. In ‘Gloria’, Gloria’s husband kicks out the screen door to get her to a waiting ambulance after he finds her incapacitated on the floor. In the last video of the album, ‘Salt and the Sea’, Junior kicks out the same screen door to get a bruised and bloody Jimmy out of the house. Both videos end with characters running from the police. This is the crux of the project: the idea that addiction is a deadly disease that worms its way into a family and holds all of its members captive.
As seen from the important context the videos provide, this is as much a visual album as a musical one. The band’s song writing is best appreciated in conjunction with the videos. The use of piano throughout the album, beginning with the beautifully sparse opening scales of ‘Donna’, ties the songs together. Schultz’s vocals are appropriately angry and anguished, particularly in ‘Leader of the Landslide’ when he sings about watching a loved one struggle: “The only thing I know is that we’re in too deep / And maybe when she’s dead and gone I’ll get some sleep”. The lead single ‘Gloria’ is the one song in which the instrumentation is most incongruous with the lyrics. The upbeat guitar feels out of place and masks the gravity of the song when Schultz sings “Gloria, there’s easier ways to die / Gloria, have you had enough?” Despite the overwhelmingly bleak tone of the album as a whole, it seems to end on a hopeful, if ambiguous, note. ‘Salt and the Sea’ suggests the possibility of reconciliation: “I’ll be your friend in the daylight again / There we will be, like an old enemy / Like the salt and the sea”.
With their second album, Cleopatra, and the short film that accompanied it, the Lumineers have proven themselves to be masters of attention to detail and world-building. This talent is clear once again in III. Buried in the lyrics of ‘Life in the City’ is an Easter egg for fans: the last verse is identical lyrically to a verse in ‘Sleep on the Floor’ from the band’s second album, Cleopatra. Along with a reference to Cleopatra earlier in the song (“And I miss my dad and Cleopatra sitting on a phone”), the Lumineers suggest a connection between that universe and this one. Details like these add intrigue and raise questions about the direction of the band’s future work, how do all these narratives tie together?
III is less a musical album than an artistic story-telling project that asks to be experienced thoughtfully, in one sitting. However, by the end of the album, it seems as though each song has the same message as the one before it. The songs are much better and more meaningful when they are taken together as a whole and with the context that the videos provide. There is not much musical variation, as the songs are supposed to cohere into a single narrative. This is not to say that they have failed in their ambitions, however. It is simply important that listeners experience the project how the band intended. The Lumineers do effectively communicate their message of the damaging effects of addiction; the videos are a cinematic gut-punch. While this album is not easy listening, creating it was certainly a risk worth taking.
– Meredith Sauer