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The Lumineers’ III: An American Tale of Human Nature & Addiction

Samuel Marx

What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘American masterpiece’? For some it’s classic literature; Age of Innocence and Huckleberry Finn. Others think art and film; American Gothic and Gone with the Wind. What I don’t immediately think of (and I’ll admit to some bias as a lover of literature more than all other forms of art), is music. If I consider a musical masterpiece, I inevitably land on Beethoven, Mozart and the like (of which I know very little about). With classic ‘American’ music, I consider Elvis Pressley, Harlem renaissance jazz, The Beach Boys, and Chuck Berry. The words together, American masterpiece, do not for me elicit modern or even recently past generations of musicians. Until now. I borrow the words of alternative folk musician Rayland Baxter (as seen on an Instagram comment, welcome to 2019) when I declaratively say that the Lumineers’ aptly titled third album, III is an American masterpiece.

Before I delve into my review, it is important to note for those unfamiliar, that III was released as a visual album, each song being accompanied by a short music video, which when strung together in order, create a stunning and already award-winning 38-minute short film (link at the end of the review). My intention with this review is to treat the tones, lyrics, styles, characters, themes, and on-screen events as one cohesive unit, as it was clearly intended by creators, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites. However, as the songs were written and produced prior to the films, and then rearranged in track order accordingly, it goes without saying that not every lyric will align with every event of the film. Finally, for those looking for a detailed analysis of keys, harmonies, and musical arrangements, I apologize. I have no place commenting on music in that sense, and instead will be treating this much like a thematic and critical analysis of a written and visual piece of work.

The album is divided up into three chapters, each told, for the most part, through the point-of-view of a different core character. The characters are all members of the extended Sparks family, beginning in 1979 with the story of Gloria, and ending 40 years later with her son Jimmy and grandson Junior Sparks. In a broad sense, the album deals with the perils of addiction; notably with its lasting and widespread effect on not only the afflicted, but their loved ones. However, on a more personal and specific level, the story of the fictional Sparks family is one of nature versus nurture. Are our human traits biologically and genetically predisposed, a result of the hereditary passing on of DNA, genes, and diseases such as alcoholism? Or, is our environment, our upbringing, our absorbed knowledge (largely from parent figures) what makes us who we are? The question that III attempts to ask through the lens of the Sparks family is, in the end, who’s to blame for our lot in life—Grandma? Mom? Dad? Me? Or is it simply human nature?

The album’s first track is “Donna”, opening with a calming, lullaby-like piano line. Its film counterpart opens on a red-faced, curious baby being passed around by his arguing parents in an attempt to capture a semi-decent (and fully fake) happy family photo. Meet mother, Gloria Sparks and son, Jimmy. The husband is unnamed but appears to be doing his best. The picture won’t be great. This track serves as a setup for the story of Gloria (the star of Chapter one) and it affectively places the blame for her struggles (coming soon) on her harsh and absent mother, Donna. The first verse depicts Donna’s parenting style and is clearly a memory that has stuck with Gloria, “You told your daughter she was ordinary.” Gloria, “the eldest of seven children” likely was held to high standards and overlooked by her mother, who had six younger children to spread her affection thinly across. Right away we’re faced with the question of fault. In the film, Donna is depicted as the happy and proud wife of a farmer. They build their own house and make their way in a time that we can estimate based on dated gravestones, was around the Great Depression. Her eldest daughter, intentional or not, was neglected and now “hates the name Donna”. Later we’ll wonder the same question when we try to blame Gloria for the poor upbringing of her son Jimmy. “You couldn’t sober up to hold a baby” is the line that rings out as she collapses for the first of many times in the film. However, Schultz sings in his raspy Americana tone, “If you don’t have it then you’ll never give it”. Can someone without love, love?

Track two is “Life in The City”, and in the film, we’re brought back about a year to New Years’ Eve, the last night of 1978. Gloria fires back a line of coke in a bathroom and drinks alone at a bar somewhere in New York City. Visually, we watch a black-clad Gloria in a low-cut top (starkly different from her fully buttoned-up blouse and sweater in “Donna”) blow off the nice guy who lights her cigarette in favor of the asshole who takes the cigarette from her without even acknowledging her. They have sex in a graffiti-covered phone booth and we watch as an army of CGI sperm swims their way towards a glowing light; one hits the target.

An impregnated Gloria returns home, gets into bed with her sleeping husband and slips her wedding ring back on. A close shot of a note on the bedside table reveals that Gloria’s mom is in the hospital and doesn’t have long to live. It also says ‘sorry love’ with a drawn heart. Poor guy.

The events of the film are pretty stock—unfulfilled wife sneaks away for a night out sewing her wild oats with the random, good-looking bad boy—but they do serve to move the story along and reveal Glories addictions. The real power of “Life in The City”, though, is in its multiple callbacks to the track “Sleep on the Floor” off The Lumineers’ second album Cleopatra. City’s bridge is a word-for-word borrow of Floor’s chorus. The exact lyrics aren’t so much important, as the parallels between the characters and events in the two films and the tone with which they’re sung. Schultz’s voice is a great deal more haunting than anthemic this time around, and it serves the thematic change well—the spark of young love has died.

“Sleep on the Floor” and its accompanying film (one of a series of three from that album) is the very optimistic and millennial story of a young couple running away together and roughing it on their own, all in the name of love. They hit the road, buy cool clothes at a thrift store, get tattoos, crash in a hip hotel, brush their teeth with their fingers, hitchhike and even get impromptu married by their hipster friend. In the end, they share a wedding dance and sleep on the floor of a friend’s house. If “Floor” is the tale of how amazing life can be when you’re adventurous and spontaneous, “City” is the harrowing reality waiting down the road. Essentially, sleeping on the floor might be exciting for a night, but it can get pretty cold down there. It’s no coincidence that the bed in the end of “Life in The City” is not on a frame or even a box, but sadly lying right there on the floor. It takes going there for some to discover that life in the city is not always as glamorous as it may seem. Much like the effects of a line of coke, the euphoria wears off pretty damn quickly.

Chapter one culminates in the marquee single “Gloria”, which delivers the boiling over we’ve been watching this young woman build towards. The albums most rhythmically and tonally upbeat song, and one of the only chanty sing-alongs we’ve become accustomed to from the band, also contains the painful message the band worked so hard to build the album around—addiction is awful for the user, awful for the family, awful for everyone. In the song’s verses, family members are helplessly along for the ride as they watch their loved one fall to pieces, “Gloria, they found you on the floor. Gloria, my hand was tied to yours.” The chorus is Gloria’s (or any afflicted person’s) desperate refrain and regret for the pain they know they’re causing, “I would lie awake and pray you don’t lie awake for me.” This is the battle with addiction. Neither side wants it, but both sides are powerless. “No one said enough is enough” is a line that anyone who’s lost someone can relate to. Why didn’t I say something sooner? The point here is that it’s much easier said than done.

Visually, the film hits every beat right. In a rush to get Gloria to the hospital, her husband kicks open the front door and leaves baby Jimmy at home all alone and the pattern of neglection continues. Gloria refuses help, gets better, comes home full of love for her baby, then starts chugging vodka again. The struggle begins again, and this time comes to a shouting match and ends with Gloria smashing a bottle of vodka into her husband’s head. In a reverse of roles, she now kicks open the door and carries him into the car. However, while lighting a cigarette, and already drunk behind the wheel, they’re t-boned at an intersection. Not to be forgotten, baby Jimmy, home alone, has gotten his hands on his mother’s bottle of vodka. The car literally spins through the air as the cycle of addiction goes ‘round, a nice visual metaphor. At the sound of sirens, Gloria runs away, leaving her husband behind to die. The symbolic nature of her running away is all-telling. She’s running from the police across a vast cornfield of nothingness. There’s no chance she gets away, as there is no running away from addiction.

Chapter two begins with the extremely sparse, “It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy For You”, which is almost entirely made up of Schultz’s voice and a twanging guitar. The spaced-out releases of each film, and their time-hopping, non-linear nature, makes this one a real mystery to take in the first time. It opens on a teenage boy with a combination of pimples and bruises on his face. He smokes a joint on the hood of his pickup truck. This must be baby Jimmy, all grown up, was my first thought. Spoiler alert (probably should have said that a while ago), it’s not. It’s actually Junior Sparks, the teenage son of baby Jimmy, and we’re 40 years in the future, in 2019. Having to piece each film and track together to create the story of the Sparks family makes the viewer feel like they’re a part of the story, and it adds to the pleasure of digesting the new album. In a sense, it forces viewers to make judgements, and as it is in real life, a lot of the time our initial assumptions are wrong.

Junior, whose name we ironically already know that his grandmother, Gloria hated, as stated in “Donna”, is alone and remembering back to the relationship and breakup of an ex-girlfriend. She’s beautiful. He’s awkward. She’s confident. He’s terrified by her advances. Their stark differences make a point about how we tend to glorify the past, and how, at that age, we put our significant others up on a pedestal. Secondly, her seeming to be everything a teenage boy would want, lends itself to the theme of the song, and reoccurring thread of the album, Junior’s inability to love. You’ll recall the earlier line from “Donna”, “If you don’t have it then you’ll never give it.”

Now, the band has publicly stated that this song is about a break-up, with Junior lamenting and resenting the ex that dumped him. If that was the artist’s intention, then fine, it’s been accurately covered in that way ad-nauseam. However, I cannot help but to come at it with my own personal experiences and thus a different reaction; that this is actually sung by the girlfriend to Junior, who she tried hard to love, but simply couldn’t do it any longer. Junior, in turn, is provided with brief, ineffectual responses in the chorus.

Again, the song uses the verse and the chorus to play out a back and forth conversation, a deft touch of writing by the band. We’re provided with both point-of-views, just two of the many we get to see life through in III, adding to the Faulker-esque nature of the album. The verse is the pained voice of the ex-girlfriend, “On the last time we met, your love was dead, you held my hand, bit your tongue, shut me out.” Anyone whose been in the final days a dying relationship knows this feeling. You say nothing because what could you say that won’t hurt them? Especially if they didn’t do anything wrong. You know it’s over, they’re waiting for you to say something, anything, but a silent handhold is all you can muster. The lyrical masterstroke here is the idea of the pain that can be inflicted by not speaking—he bites his tongue, but she’s the one who bleeds.

The chorus serves as Junior’s lost attempt at explaining his actions. “It wasn’t easy being happy for you. I took the poison praying you’d feel it too.” A young man, who we’ll later come to learn is the child of a drug-addicted and abusive father, can’t feel genuinely good for someone else, and instead is only able to hurt both her and him. Whether that ‘poison’ is figurative or literal, the point is made—he’s clearly inherited some of his grandmother’s destructive behavior. She goes on to tell him, “You always felt, we dragged you down.” It’s is a common feeling among narcissistic people, that they would be better off on their own, and they often push the people who love them the most away in favor of their own aspirations. The only line of the song that causes me to question my reversed take of the breakup is the bridge, “You played it the best, a dame in distress.” Literally, this would obviously be said to a woman, not a teenage boy. However, I believe this is the band's comment on how so many of us tend to use our problems as an excuse for our actions, whether the two are related or not. She seems to believe that Junior is using his difficult home life as an excuse for his neglect of her. He is essentially playing the role of ‘the dame’. This can be directly connected back to Gloria being neglected by her mother and allowing it to affect her relationship with her own son and husband. We’re learning quickly that the Sparks family does not fall far from the tree.

Up next in chapter two is, “Leader of The Landslide”, a runaway highlight of the album. A haunting, dead-air filled soliloquy by Schultz for the first two minutes, which explodes into a fast-paced singalong in the second half. The combination is everything Lumineers’ fans love about their music; powerful, sentimental, meaningful, and somehow still fun. In the film, we’re introduced to the adult Jimmy Sparks—Gloria’s son, and Junior’s absolute train wreck of a father. Junior is scared awake by his dad, then he watches as Jimmy pours out his usual cup of coffee and booze, a little hair of the dog I’m sure. Speaking of the dog, she’s dead, and they’re about to bury her in the backyard. As they do for so many people, the family pet acted as a replacement vessel of love and affection for both men who have lost mothers and lovers alike, and now, that love too is gone.

An initial watch and listen to “Landslide” may lead you to believe that it is clearly about a son’s hatred for his abusive, alcoholic, and drug-addicted father. The film does lean into that, and it is that, but beneath the surface, it’s actually about Junior's discovery that his father is not really the one to blame here. Junior learns that the target for his teenage angst deserves instead to be directed at his mother and grandmother, the two women whose actions made Jimmy into the reckless man he is. In a later track, it’s revealed that Jimmy’s wife Bonnie left him, presumably with addiction problems of her own. She, his grandmother Gloria, (and even sweet great grandmother Donna) are actually the ‘leaders of the landslide’ as they started the cycle of neglect. In a vacuum, Jimmy is a horrendous, dangerous father, but in the context of III, he’s just another victim.

The lyrics in this track, more so than others on the album, truly seem as if they could come from, and could be about, any member of the Sparks family, “You drove me wild, drove me insane. Drank the whole bottle, forgot my name.” Is this Jimmy speaking to his mother Gloria, or his wife? Is it Jimmy’s wife towards him? Is it Junior towards Jimmy? Most will say that the chapter title is Junior Sparks, so it must be about Junior, but is the story of Junior not also the story of Jimmy, and Gloria, and Donna? The broad stroke of the lyric helps to paint the picture that this is the tale of a family, and in a family plagued by addiction, everyone feels resentment, and everyone gets hurt. The final line of the chorus is one that was hinted towards in “Gloria”, and it’s a pretty painful pill to swallow. Schultz’ wails out, “Maybe when she’s dead and gone, I’ll get some sleep.” You can hear in his voice the anguish, distress, and shame he feels that the awful thought even crossed his mind. Is he right, though? Anyone whose watched addicted friends or family members (or even aging parents and grandparents) self-destruct or become more dependent over time, could likely relate with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, everything would just be better if off if they were gone already.

Enter “Left for Denver”, the final track of the Junior Sparks saga, and a glimmer of hope, maybe. Another track consisting of just Schultz and his steel string guitar, this did initially feel like a lull in the album and potentially that there was an overabundance of soft, slow, sad songs collected in one place. For those looking for that upbeat album to throw on in the car with friends and let run, this probably isn’t it (unless they’re my friends, then they’d shout along), and “Left for Denver” definitely isn’t the track you’ll want to lead with. That being said, it’s a well-placed alternate look at the Junior Sparks-esque kid we all knew in high school. The lyrics and the film work together to provide a look behind the curtain and even some answers to the unfair questions we all asked of the kid who played with matches and smoked in the bathroom—What’s wrong with him?

The song suggests Junior has been causing trouble in his public life, “You brought the box up to the high school, you spiked the Gatorade”. Junior is the kid who bullshits his way through the school week, probably getting suspended a decent amount, and lives for the weekend party. We see only what that kid wants us to see, and not what’s really going on behind the scenes, “And it was all for the weekend. And it was all still falling apart”. Outwardly he’s wild, exciting, funny, cool, tough. At home, and on the inside, he’s scared and lost. What’s wrong with him, you ask? What’s wrong is that he’s the victim of a severely broken home, of addiction, he’s desperate for attention he doesn’t get, he’s lonely, and none of it is his fault.

Interestingly enough, those familiar with the band’s origin story will know that they left the New York City music scene for the smaller and more accepting Denver market. They took a chance, left a tough situation and found a better way. Knowing this, and removing the Sparks family film from the equation, makes Denver play as a hopeful song. It reads as the story of the one who got out, left their hometown, and beat the cycle of stagnation and potentially addiction. Maybe the matches kid finally figures it all out. The film, however, tells a vastly different story. A bruised Junior floats through the house, wrecked from his dad’s party in “Leader of The Landslide”, lights a piano on fire, finds a gun in his dad’s room and speeds away in the family truck. Subtract the gun and we have our boy saying enough is enough and leaving it all behind. Add the gun, and it’s not very promising.

It’s also worth noting the large number of motifs that we begin to notice at this point in the film series. To name a few; the film opens on a behind shot of Junior smoking looking out across the farm, just as “Landslide” did on Jimmy; Junior taps a key on the same piano Gloria tapped earlier, then he punches it; in “Landslide”, he threw a beer can at his dad, as Gloria threw a vodka bottle at her husband. All of these callbacks, along with the constant setting of the Sparks family home, which only changes on the inside, never on the outside, serve to drill home to cyclical and repetitive nature of addiction, as people make the same mistake over and over again. It also suggests the hereditary nature of disease and genealogy. As we are products of our parents, we have no say in inheriting their virtues, as well as their flaws.

III’s final chapter is the saga of Jimmy Sparks, of whom we come in knowing quite a bit about; or so we think. Across the last few tracks and films we’ve watched as he’s drank, done various drugs, neglected and beat his son, and we’re pretty confident that he’s an overall piece of shit. However, we cannot forget what we’ve seen before all of that; he’s still that innocent baby boy who was raised by a bottle of vodka. The final chapter of III will force to consider the question, is any of this really his fault?

That exploration begins with “My Cell”, a dark, heavy hitter both visually and lyrically. We’ve already seen what Junior did the morning after his father’s house party (drove off with dad’s gun), now we’ll find out where Jimmy ended up. We open on him having sex with the woman (seemingly a prostitute) we saw walk into the party back at the end of “Leader of the Landslide”. Afterward, Jimmy smiles in a way that we’ve only seen when he drinks, sees his biker buddies, and does blow. It’s a cheap-thrills and fleeting euphoria type of smile, and it won’t last. We know this, and he probably does too (human nature sees us repeat self-destructive behaviors despite knowing the unfulfilling outcomes), but what he doesn’t realize is that the woman is secretly texting behind his back. Jimmy doesn’t get that he’s been set up until the motel door smashes into his head, sending blood in the air and him to the floor. He’s gotten in with the wrong crowd and seriously messed up, as the unsavory intruder beats him to within an inch of his life, robs him, and leaves him for dead.

What the Lumineers do so well here is, after spending the last three films making sure that we absolutely loathe Jimmy Sparks, they abruptly turn the table and force us to feel empathy for him. How can we not when we realize what he’s gotten himself into long before he does? He’s the victim now, and on the floor, he’s a pathetic, sad mess. He thinks he sees his dog, who we know is dead. We see a flashed image of him and the woman laughing together, with some degree of real love between them, then he reaches out to her for help. She, in turn, kicks him in the face. He’s been completely duped, and we can’t help but feel pretty damn bad for poor Jimmy.

There’s not much to the lyrics, so there is much up to interpretation here. The cell they’re talking about could be anything from a prison cell, to your bedroom, to your mind—any place you can be left all alone to brood, either forced or voluntary. It’s a commentary on how those dealing with depression attempt to seek safety by receding from the outside world and shutting themselves off. There’s also a pretty clear religious undertone here, which makes it necessary to discuss how much reference there is to the church through the album. We hear in the song’s chorus lines, “Painted windows there for me. Painted windows so I can see. Painted windows so I see. Painted windows are for me”. A product of catholic high school, painted windows mean stained glass church windows. In the previous tracks, we’ve already heard lines such as “You’re praying for a funeral”, “Fuck all your prayers”, “Heaven help me now, heaven show the way”, “I would lie awake and pray you don’t lie awake for me”, and “I took the poison praying you’d feel it too”. None of these lyrics suggest that the songwriters, or their addicted characters, are finding any solace in the church or in their prayers. If anything, the album collectively comes off as a bitter and jaded outburst against an institution which they (writers and characters) were raised to believe would help them through difficult times, but turned out just to be words, crutches, and excuses.

Up next, we get the full background on our antagonist turned victim with the western folktale style track, “Jimmy Sparks”. This is the Lumineers at their singer-songwriter best, as they weave a dark tale about a modern-day American outlaw, of which their New Jersey-born compatriot, Bruce Springsteen, would be proud. Again, the decision to reveal certain life details after we’ve already formed an opinion about the character is a strong device, and it reminds us of how quick we are to assume, judge, and label. Jimmy does bad things, so he’s bad, and he deserves whatever he gets. Well, hold that thought…

After an intro verse we begin the story of Jimmy’s young adult life, “Jimmy believed in the American way. A prison guard, he worked hard and made the minimum wage”. Then we’re told that he loved a woman named Bonnie, whom he had Junior with before she took off. Here, we have another institutional American belief—religion already mentioned—failing someone who fundamentally believed in it. It’s ingrained in us from a young age that one day we’ll get a job, work hard, start a family, and everything will be great. Not so for Jimmy, who been chewed up by systemic poverty and hardship. Now, he turns to gambling as a quick fix to try to feed his kid. Jimmy’s actions in a nutshell—right intention, wrong execution.

The memorable through-line of the song is a lesson which Jimmy teaches to his young son late at night on the way home from the gambling hall, “Out on the road they caught a stranger in the lights. His thumb was up, and his son asked if the man was alright. Jim said you never give a hitcher a ride, 'cause it’s us or them.” This father-son interaction raises the question of who’s to blame for the passing on of traits, this time selfish egotism, through generations. Jimmy, left for dead at the end of “My Cell”, staggers down the street, miles from home, and in and out of consciousness. He’s desperate for help when a car emerges over the horizon.

In conjunction with the film for the penultimate track, “April”, a mysterious 50-second instrumental interlude featuring only Fraites on the piano, we discover that the car is the same blue pickup truck we saw Junior speed away from the house in... “His old man waved his hands with tears in his eyes. But Jimmy's son just sped up and remembered daddy's advice. No, you don't ever give a hitcher a ride. ‘Cause it’s us or them.” It’s a terrifically sad moment as, following his own advice, Jimmy’s teenage son, still bloodied from their first fight, speeds right past him like he’s not even there. Junior was just doing what he was taught. Jimmy was just teaching what he’d learned. The cycle of self-destruction and poor values continues, and we begin to understand that the American dream was never really a possibility for Jimmy or Junior. Jimmy passed on an awful moral code to his son, just as his mother Gloria passed on an awful and crippling disease to him. Children of neglect and addiction, they were born into this world without a chance in hell.

This brings us to the final track. Recently the Lumineers Instagram account posted a picture of an arm with raised hair and goosebumps. The caption read, “Name that Lumineers song”. The top comment from their audience simply reads, ‘Salt and The Sea’, and they’re right. “Salt and The Sea”, the final installment into the Sparks family saga, will tighten your throat and well up the type of tears that will physically scare you. The film is gut-wrenching.

The opening shot features the entire Sparks family, from Donna down to Junior, and everyone in-between gathered on the front porch of the family home. This establishes the idea that song is the realization by everyone in the Sparks family—and more importantly every real person— that despite everything their loved ones put them through during their battle with addiction, that’s what they still are—their loved ones. In the end, they love you, they need help (whether they found the courage to ask or not), and they never meant for any of it to hurt you. It’s simple logic that no one wants to be addicted. They’re caught, and they’re helpless, and they’d end it in a second if they could, but they can’t.

The opening line asks, “Could it be I was the one you held so deep in the night?” This suggests the shock that Junior might feel if he were to learn that in his darkest hours, his father was thinking of him. How could that be? Was Jimmy Gloria’s rock through all of her painful nights? Gloria, Donna’s? They’d all tell you, no, based on their parents’ outright neglect, but our public actions tend not to reveal our true and private nature. We save those feelings for when we’re alone. This song is about discovery, and acceptance of the harrowing events we’ve just witnessed. When Schultz sings, “You need a villain, give me a name”, he’s giving in to the role he plays in his addicted family member’s life. If that has to be the bad guy for trying to help, then that sucks, but so be it, he’s still going to try. As it’s been used in great literary works from The Bible to The Great Gatsby, he will, like the sea, forever be there and forever provide solace.

The film, as I said, will tear into you. Jimmy made it home, but he’s flirting with death. Junior stands over him, gun in one hand, a duffel bag of cash in the other. A terrified son and his defeated father. Junior sits, his leg shakes with fear, and here we go again. For the third time the screen door of the Sparks home is kicked open, and this time Junior drags Jimmy across the front lawn and into the truck. Unable to start that car, and with police lights getting closer, Jimmy provides his son with a final life lesson—run. He clutches Junior and mouths what looks like “Listen to me, this once, okay?” as if to say, ‘I know I’ve been wrong every other time before, but this time, trust me that I’m right.’ Unfortunately, he’s wrong again. Jimmy seems to truly mean well, but his judgment and empathy are poisoned by his twisted understanding of right and wrong. The Sparks family cycle comes full circle when, just as Gloria did earlier in the film, Junior takes off running across the field. We already learned that running from your problems doesn’t work. Especially not in a giant empty cornfield.

With young Junior running for his life, the film fades to black, but the story of the Sparks family doesn’t end there—that’s not how it works. Junior will grow up and probably have a child of his own. That child will be the next in line to potentially endure the crushing cycle of addiction, neglect, and abuse. Or will they? That’s the question beautifully posed by III. Are we destined by fate and genetics to become who we will become? Are we simply products of chemicals and genealogy and nature, unable to have a say in the course and outcomes of our lives? Or can we change, or be changed? Can someone or something intervene, and nurture, and readjust a scientifically and mentally warped sense of right and wrong, and of purpose? Can a change of scenery (they should have razed that house long ago!), can a new role model, can religion save us?

With III, and it’s sympathetic, hopeful conclusion, The Lumineers appear to be pleading the message that, just because Gloria and Jimmy couldn’t be saved, doesn’t mean we have to give up on young Junior, and it doesn’t mean we should be resigned to letting all of the Sparks continue to die out.

A true leap in depth of content from their previous two albums but staying true to their ‘written and performed in the living room’ style, the Lumineers have done something very special with III. Their committed fans will only hold them up even higher, while those that wrote them off (apparently, it’s cool to not like The Lumineers) may find this deft level of storytelling to be much more impressive than they expected. While not particularly upbeat or even fun by any means, audiences have here a powerful and relatable story of family, and failure, and of hope. And for those intellectuals looking for the next great American Masterpiece, I believe that they can confidently put III on the shelves next to their Faulkner’s and hang it beside their Pollocks.

Note* III does provide three additional bonus tracks, which have no bearing on the Sparks family story, so I’ll leave them as gifts for the true Lumineers fan. I’ll just say that “Democracy” is a track that confirms there very much is the potential for change in this world, and it will get stuck in your head, so be careful.

Watch and listen to the visual album III, HERE.

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