If you’re looking to curl up on a lonely Saturday night with a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and some headphones, then the Lumineers’ newly released III is perfect for you. Even the “happy” songs are sad.
Innovative in its form, the album is comprised of three divisions that recount three generations of a family plagued by addiction, adultery, and violence. A series of ten stunningly tear-jerking music videos accompanies the tracks. There you won’t find the band playing, dancing, or singing. The clips are more like short films than music videos. The common thread uniting the audio and visuals is familial suffering.
III’s dark world is painful. It is emotionally taxing to listen to the album in one sitting. “Donna” gets things started. The chug of a slow train rolls in the background, foreboding the family’s achingly slow self-destruction. It’s one of those songs with lyrics at once surprisingly simple and emotionally evocative. A voice enters, “It’s not the words you say, but how you say it.” The wounds run deep as the artist recalls the tone of an anguishing mother who drinks away her misfortunes.
This matriarch’s addictive patterns continue in the life of the second generation’s protagonist–or perhaps auto-antagonist–Jimmy. In the music video for “Leader of the Landslide,” the Lumineers’ portray him as the “aftermath” of his mother’s “broken glass.” Whereas his mother would mostly drink alone, Jimmy throws raging house parties at which an ample selection of narcotics abound. His son looks on the scene with derision, aware that his father is using drugs to deal with the pain of losing his wife.
The end of the album expands on the image of a broken family as a metaphor for a hypocritical and decadent nation. The lyrics point not only to an individual’s psychological imprisonment but also to the issue of criminal incarceration: “Jimmy believed in the American way. / A prison guard, he worked hard and made the minimum wage. / He found his freedom lockin’ men in a cage, oh.” It’s the irony of a system that ensures the economic independence of some at the cost of the captivity of others. The social criticism continues later in the song. Jimmy takes out a loan after gambling away his money in an effort to pay for his son’s medical bills, but he can’t pay it back. The sharks find him and kick him out of his car onto a bitterly cold street in the middle of the winter. Expensive healthcare drives the family further into the ground. Jimmy, who once counseled his son to stay away from the homeless because it’s either “us or them,” now finds himself among those who are sleeping in the streets and asking for a dime.
Frankly, the Lumineers’ dismal depiction of family and society is simply a depiction of reality, so I am glad that they have done it. An opioid epidemic is sweeping the nation. Suicide is on the rise. Divorce is rampant. Armed massacres recur with baffling frequency. The Lumineers have firmly decided to direct their music towards this sad state of things. They pull out the personal and emotional implications of a drugged, hyper-sexualized, and bellicose nation.
Mainstream pop often tells a different tale. Adultery, drugs, and violence are stripped of their human context and consequences. Sexual promiscuity is fun. Nevermind that adultery tears families apart. Cocaine is an “experience.” Nevermind that lows follow highs. Violence is a sign of strength. Nevermind that real people suffer from the quick pull of a trigger. There’s no need to deny it. Most of the songs on today’s pop playlists are superficial.
Something else is happening in III. The old motto for problem solving counsels us to “observe, judge, and act.” The Lumineers’ latest album may just be the first step in our familial and national healing process. Before we make any decisions about how to leave this valley in which we collectively find ourselves, we have to take a long, sobering look at our present state. We need to let it sink in. We need to confront it. When we listen to III in this light, its impenetrable sadness becomes more understandable. The album is a dramatized narrative of our current affairs, and we are, in a word, depressed.
However, The Lumineers are not inducing our sadness through their music for the sake of bringing us down. They tell this dark tale, but they offer hints of light, as one might expect from the band’s name. A ray emerges in “Democracy,” one of those rare bonus tracks that is clearly more than an afterthought. Amidst the count of a slow but firm battalion drum, a voice hopefully cries, “I’m junk, but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet. / Democracy is coming to, to the USA.” A trickle of light shines in the darkness. A hint of beauty illuminates the black, broken recesses of our lives. The sure sound of the drum’s beat in “Democracy” tells us that, though we may be in the thick of a nationwide overdose, our collective heart is still beating.
It’s as if we are walking on the shards of a broken mirror in the middle of the night, and our eyes catch the reflection of a twinkling star. Somehow, light breaks in. The Lumineers in III are prophets of this light.