“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Leo Tolstoy wrote these words in 1877 about the characters of “Anna Karenina,” but they also apply to the fictitious Sparks family: Gloria, Jimmy and their son Junior. The lives of these three people are troublesome and muddled, but we can piece them together in bits and pieces — Gloria’s alcoholism and Jimmy’s gambling addiction, a broken relationship and a bloody car crash. Unlike Oblonsky and his wife, however, the Sparks are not characters in a novel; they are the subjects of the third studio album by indie folk band the Lumineers, an ambitious musical project that confronts themes of addiction and family trauma through one overarching narrative.
With the aptly titled III, the Lumineers have proven to be a gift that keeps on giving. The band consistently outdoes itself from one album to the next; the organization gets smarter and more coherent, while the lyrics sound more mature, as songwriters Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites tackle increasingly complex topics. At the time of its release in 2016, the band’s sophomore album, Cleopatra — with its slow acoustics and melancholic odes to fame — marked a notable shift in tone from its earlier music. Now, the Lumineers are pushing the envelope even further, both emotionally and musically.
Gone are the lighthearted tunes of the Lumineers’ self-titled debut album and the sweet love songs of Cleopatra — every song off of III is a new heartbreak. The album is separated into three chapters each released as EPs with three or four songs on a different member of the Sparks family, and there’s always a different perspective to explore or a new tragedy to dissect. While the band has always been known for its storytelling skills, the amount of thought put into every song on this album is simply brilliant.
The chapter Jimmy Sparks, the last one to be released, is certainly the darkest of the bunch, but even the fast-paced songs of the first chapter Gloria Sparks hit hard with lyrics such as, “Gloria, you crawled up on your cross/ Gloria, you made us sit and watch.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the band has lost its spirit. While the overall tone of the album is somber, this feeling is balanced out by a handful of lively and passionate songs like “Gloria” and “Life in the City” — ones that you can imagine yourself chanting along to at a concert. Even when exploring heavy topics, the Lumineers know how to keep the audience tuned in.
“Leader of the Landslide,” easily one of the best songs on the album, stands out as a perfect example of this. It starts off slow and meandering with Schultz’s vocals drowning out the acoustics in the background. “Fate has dealt me a lonely blow,” he croons, singing from the perspective of Junior Sparks. The tempo and instrumentals pick up soon after, however, culminating in one of the most rousing tunes that the Lumineers have made.
Other notable tracks include “Donna,” which sounds like the bittersweet lullaby that your mother always sang but never wanted you to hear, and “Jimmy Sparks,” a tale of financial woe with a heart-wrenching twist at the end. Of course, one could just as easily argue that all of the songs from III are notable because of the way the album is set up. That isn’t to say that every song is a smash hit; some of the slower tracks fly under the radar during a first listen through. It is clear, however, that each song has its own place in the narrative, like threads woven together to create the intricate and twisted lives of the Sparks family.
Ultimately, it is this coherency and almost cinematic organization that makes III such a triumph even compared to the Lumineers’ last album, which was more or less on par in terms of the quality of music. By combining a complicated narrative with a spread of diverse and musically interesting tracks, the band members have not only set a new bar for themselves, but for the modern music industry as a whole.
Contact Lauren Sheehan-Clark at [email protected].