Thoughtful and compassionate storytelling
With their third album, III, the Lumineers attempt to tell a story in three parts about the effect addiction can have on lives. This is no easy tasks and amidst their storytelling, the band cultivates an atmosphere of comfortable nostalgia that makes the bleakness of the story easier to grapple with.
The Lumineers have a penchant for telling stories and usually rely on a minimalist acoustic sound full of guitar and piano. This album continues that tradition on a grander scale as they attempt to weave different narratives together to tell a story about addiction. Fancying themselves modern-day troubadours, they tell the story of gambling addiction and the destructive mentality of winner-take-all in the song “Jimmy Sparks.” The eponymous protagonist, for, it would be perverse to call him hero, takes his young son gambling and on their drive him they see a hitchhiker. “You never give a hitcher a ride ’cause it’s us or them,” Jimmy tells his young son. Years later, Jimmy finds himself destitute and hitchhiking when his son drives by, “but Jimmy’s son just sped up and remembered daddy’s advice.” The story is told with chillingly spare instrumentation. The song never quite settles into a consistent, repetitive groove that pop songs often do, giving it a feeling of instability and uncertainty. At the end of the day, it is a song about compassion, which is what the Lumineers are fighting against. Jimmy cautions his son against compassion, a lesson which his son takes to heart.
The Lumineers tell their story with compassion. They are sympathetic to each character and their struggles. In the first track on the album “Donna,” they look at the attributes from the perspective of someone close to her. Some are light-hearted, “You hate the name Donna,” and some are complimentary, “you raised a saint, Donna.” Some are nostalgic “We drove from New Jersey/ the trucks always made you worry,” and some are bleak, “A little boy was born in February/ you couldn’t sober up to hold a baby.” But always the narrator empathizes. The song has a warmth to it as if the narrator is alone reminiscing, though he speaks in the second person to Donna. The piano follows the melody of the vocals in places which makes it feel even more dreamy.
Compassion need not always be as gloomy as “Donna” or “Jimmy Sparks.” The more upbeat “Gloria” is about renewed life, though its depiction of addiction is no less bleak. The narrator recalls Gloria’s alcohol addiction, and how he finally got “back on my own two feet” but only by distancing himself from Gloria. It is both hopeless and hopeful. Without explicit criticism of her, the narrator would “lie awake and pray you don’t lie awake for me.”
A common theme among these songs is their perspective. Songs on the album examine addiction from the perspective of the loved ones if effects. These narrators are often unnamed, but they experience the difficulty of seeing a parent or relative struggling with addiction. This album voices their stories with compassion. Though the album can feel repetitive, the story the Lumineers want to tell keeps you listening.