'III' by The Lumineers: Exploring the Harrowing Effects of Alcoholism, Loneliness and Mental Health
Perhaps most known for their 2012 indie-folk breakthrough hit ‘Ho Hey’, The Lumineers’ third major commercial project, aptly named ‘III’, is their most ambitious and sonically diverse yet. Split into three distinct sections, each exploring different emotional and music timbres, this album has a wide palette to offer its listener. ‘III’ treads a similar path as the bands sophomore album, ‘Cleopatra’, where the lyrical drive for most of its songs comes from the folk tradition of story-telling, yet ‘III’ takes this concept and makes it centre stage. Instead of one, loosely tied together story strewn across multiple songs, ‘III’ tells three separate yet linked stories of different members of a fictional family.
Unlike its predecessor, this album refrains from drenching its tracks in large, arena-filling reverbs, instead opting largely to keep the recordings dry and intimate. The band have clearly sacrificed the grand, spacious singalongs like ‘Gun Song’ for a grittier tone - and it pays off. Opting for a more rudimentary production allows for the darker, story-driven lyrics to take centre stage. This grittier tone is also apparent through the albums musical performance, where the heavily strummed acoustic guitars like that on ‘It Wasn’t Easy to be Happy For You’ clearly communicate the emotional value of the lyrics: “I wrapped my neck and hoped that you’d feel the noose”, the character, and the guitar playing, is breaking down.
This is not the first time The Lumineers have touched on several taboo and difficult subjects: alcoholism and suicide for example, though this is the first to address in a far darker, less glamorous tone. It's a much appreciated change of pace from their previous work. It is also a much greater artistic endeavour than their earlier output, no longer relying on the listener's emotional state going into the record, rather trying to influence it coming out.
The albums opener, ‘Donna’, cleverly backs the fear of ‘ordinarity’ with a standard and, ordinary, riff purely moving up and down the piano. It’s one of the more emotionally driving tracks, where its listener will easily relate to this fear at some level. It’s a beautiful piece, both lyrically and musically, and really sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Perhaps one of the bands greatest examples of storytelling comes from the song ‘Leader of the Landslide’, portraying this characters longing for a maternal figure, and (arguably mistakingly) realising his life's downfalls can be attributed to his mother. Beginning with ambient rainfall, and a lightly plucked guitar motif that gently supports the emotional, and sometimes whiny vocals. The track then transitions, almost uncomfortably, into a far more resentful tone, with lyrics tinged in anger: “Give back my keys, take back those clothes”. It’s a powerful switchup, clearly painting this characters emotional journey from regret to anger.
“My Cell” is lyrically my favourite track on the record. It’s a stunning example of “less is more”, artistically illustrates delusional loneliness and longing for someone. The Lumineers’ dark lyricism is at its best here: “Painted windows, so I see, painted windows, all for me”. Wesley Shultz performance is crazed and slightly tormented, expertly driving the narrative of being emotionally locked away. The roughly strummed guitars from ‘It Wasn’t Easy To Be Happy For You’ make another appearance here, complementing the haunting vocal performance.
I did not really care for ‘Salt and the Sea’, where it’s repeated piano sequence seemed to bore me, and the lack of melodic diversity had me wishing there was some form of shift in pace, much like the records earlier track ‘Leader of the Landslide'. Nor did I really care for the bonus tracks on this album, though I did appreciate the bare-bones and unique ‘Old Lady’, where the recurring theme of grittiness rears its head again in the form of clearly out of tune vocals when Shultz reaches his higher register. Its interesting use of panning plays into its appeal also.
Overall 'III' is a masterclass in modern storytelling through music. It's lyrically ambitious, sonically diverse and yet comforting, and very emotional. Through ditching the commercial indie-rock sound and returning to its roots, The Lumineers explore the harrowing affects of alcoholism and mental health on an isolated family. It’s a harrowing and emotional account of these issues, and anyone with an interest in contemporary folk would be missing out if they did not give it a listen.