Review: Lumineers grow into their sound

The album cover for III features the images of Gloria, Junior, and Jimmy Sparks, respectively.

Dualtone Music Group, Inc.

The album cover for III features the images of Gloria, Junior, and Jimmy Sparks, respectively.

By Liam H. Flake, Fossil Ridge High School

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On Friday, September 13, the Lumineers released their newest album, aptly titled “III.” This marks their first album since the release of “Cleopatra” in 2016, and marked a strong development in their style.

III is a concept album, following in three sections the lives of three members of the Sparks family: Gloria Sparks, Junior Sparks, and Jimmy Sparks, respectively. Within this, III deals with issues of addiction and related themes. 

Gloria Sparks:

Donna

Opening the album with a simple piano scale, this is one of the better songs on the album. It holds a slower, contemplative feel, featuring only the voice of Wesley Schultz and a strong but uncomplicated piano melody. The lyrics are characterizing and descriptive: “You hate the name Donna/You love to judge strangers’ karma.” The song achieves a simultaneous sense of peace and insight.

Life in the City

Though it succeeds in invoking the dreary, yet hopeful feeling of city life, this song fails to impress. It features a pleasant swinging melody, and most parts of the song are catchy and enjoyable (and it makes an allusion to the opening track to their album, “Sleep on the Floor”), but the vocal transition is all too reminiscent of a fourth grader performing opera, making this song feel overdone and cheesy.

Gloria

This is the song that you will hear over and over again, if you listen to the right radio stations. It was the first song released from the album, and is named for the person depicted in the first three songs. In comparison to the rest of the album, the song feels fast, frantic, making the listener feel like running with a strong guitar strum, with overarching themes themes of alcoholism. It is not profound, but is fun and catchy, if a little overplayed.

Junior Sparks:

It Wasn’t Easy Being Happy for You

This song begins the second part of the album with a simple and carrying guitar strumming pattern. It is subdued yet driving, capturing the mood reminiscent of reflecting on a past relationship in a disgruntled and somewhat apathetic way, like the feeling of kicking dust around while walking. In this way, it is perfect for bitterly recollecting one’s last relationship without ever admitting emotional vulnerability. The chorus is simple, picking up the tune a little but never rising above the resigned tone. It is not deeply moving, but a fitting tune for particular times.

Leader of the Landslide

This song, as perhaps the best to come out of III, opens with a quiet and calm guitar riff. With the faintest sound of crickets in rain in the background, it invokes a vivid feeling, akin to that of waking up in the morning and sitting on the edge of one’s bed, tired. The lyrics express a strained relationship with the narrator’s mother in very lucid language. The speed builds, switching to a strum that gradually builds, giving a feeling of rising frustration, until it breaks into the chorus, seeming downright energetic, before returning to the quiet hollowness it began with. With all these different parts reflecting diverse sentiments all stitched together, “Leader of the Landslide” makes a rather beautiful tune.

Left for Denver

When I first saw the title for this song, it made me smile a little: the Lumineers, after two albums, had finally written an ode to their hometown. Alas, the song makes little mention of our dear neighboring city beyond the chorus, but the sentiment remains. The song’s feel is not unlike that of “It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy For You,” with a persistent but resigned guitar strum that provides a laid back and restless tone that is reflected in the lyrics (“When did you leave, and when you did, you left for Denver.”) The lyrics themselves seem unimpressive, proving to be repetitive, strange, and uninspiring.

Jimmy Sparks:

My Cell

Falling in love is wonderful/Falling in love is so alone.” Capturing the haunting tone that sets the mood for the rest of this section, “My Cell” makes a full demonstration of Wesley Schultz’s voice. The lyrics are minimalistic, yet combined with the singing offers a sense of deep pain and disillusionment with love and of being trapped in one’s own mind. The narrator deeply and truly sounds pained and despairing, and the song succeeds in extensive expressiveness, bearing a genuine feeling of isolation.

Jimmy Sparks

This song competes with “Life in the City” for worst song on the album. Though containing poignant themes of gambling addiction and capturing the haunting tone that characterizes the section of the album for which it was named, “Jimmy Sparks” is simply too straightforward. It tells the story of the eponymous character, who cannot seem to stay out of trouble; in doing so, it follows a step by step narrative, creating a chronology of Jimmy’s actions. This format, compared to the enigmatic and thought provoking lyrics typical of the Lumineers, are remarkably mundane and literal, to a mind numbing degree. The lyrics are artistic and thoughtful, but maintain the subtlety of an Ikea assembly manual beside the remainder of the album. This is not at all helped by the repetitive nature of the song, with a crushing amount of verse compared to the sparing chorus, and the five minute run time only serves to seal this song’s dreariness.

April

When I first played “April” for my sister on the drive to school one fine September morning, she listened contemplatively, remarking simply: “This sounds like Halloween.” Indeed, as the third solo piano song to come from the Lumineers (the first two being “Patience” and “For Fra”), the tune is eerie, sentimental, and emotive. In it, the band proves a strong understanding of mood in music and of instrumental mastery. The song seems as a moment of contemplation or nostalgia captured by the notes of a piano (and at a little over 50 seconds, it is just that: no more than a moment.)  It is simple, short, and beautiful.

The Salt and the Sea

Following the last three songs of Jimmy Sparks, “The Salt and the Sea” shifts the tone from ominous to final, satisfied resolution. The transition from “April” makes an interesting contrast from the ending of Cleopatra; the aforementioned album concludes with the instrumental “Patience,” which offers a feeling of hollow and melancholy contemplation ending, whereas “The Salt and the Sea” provides both a sense of dark and acceptance from the guitar and a feeling of impending reckoning via the piano intervals in the background. It is final, resigned, and apocalyptic, giving III a proper ending, and a properly dismal one at that.

Bonus Tracks:

Democracy

Like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”, this cover of a Leonard Cohen tune is a realistic portrait of our nation, not pretty, but hopeful. The Lumineers uplift the song with guitar and an orchestral intro reminiscent of “Tennessee” from Pearl Harbor. Altogether, the cover adopts a tone that is quite hopeful, patriotic, and, well, American.

Old Lady

“Old Lady” is a song that is slow, quiet, and sorrowful. It does not hit you with any excessive instrumentation or overdeveloped melody, having only a minimalistic guitar part and simple beat in the background, but rather is the sort of song that just makes you sit there and think and feel sad. It is the sort of song, like their “Slow It Down” or “Gale Song”, that is perfect for listening when simply driving at night and staring blankly at the road when there is too much on your mind.

Soundtrack Song

This tune can genuinely be described as jaunty, employing a few quick piano chords as the introduction. It is fun, reminding the listener of the more light hearted nature that characterized their early career. It describes an abstract scene, not unlike as done in their “Big Parade” from their first album. 

As a fan of the Lumineers, I was rather excited to hear that after a period of relative quiet, they were releasing a new album. I listened to the songs as they came out, on my porch or driving back from a campsite, meandering through an airport or sharing them with my family. When the full album was finally released, I drove to Target and bought the CD for my car. And I was not disappointed.

In III, The Lumineers show that they know who they are. They have, at this point, developed and refined their style into a smooth, cohesive, and mature sound. In this album, they show that they can tell a story, show that they can paint a character in three songs and three in ten, show that they can take these characters and create a saga that tackles the grittier themes of society and weaves them into a captivating series of songs in an artful manner. III is a mastery of human emotion and of American life.

III can be found on major streaming platforms and in stores nationwide.

This story was originally published on Etched in Stone on October 9, 2019.