Indie folk band The Lumineers, perhaps best known for their popular song “Ho Hey,” have just released their third studio album: III.
And man is it a doozy.
Filled with The Lumineers’ unique vocal and stylistic pairings, this 13-track album stands out as a sad story told from a generational perspective. It follows a family’s lineage, beginning with one woman whose substance abuse and past demons set into motion the destructive habits of generations to come.
And while this overarching tale is graphic and heart-wrenching, it also emphasizes the power of a life well lived. The Lumineers remind us that no decision is too small and no life is insignificant, because we are all connected in some way and our actions do indeed affect those around us.
Though III is in many ways filled to the brim with difficult subjects, sad story lines and a depressing tone, a few lyrics give a glimpse of hope: “Soundtrack Song.” This track focuses on veering away from loneliness and dysfunctional habits, on choosing to fight for joy and victory: “’Cause all this, it don’t come free/And don’t become a casualty/And live beneath what you were meant to be/ … Victory is in the fight.” Similar themes of choosing hope over despair are heard in “Life in The City”: “Will you just lay down and dig your grave/Or will you rail against the dying day?”
“Salt and the Sea” is about a person who promises to be faithful to a friend struggling with alcoholism: (“All that you suffered, all the disease/You couldn’t hide it, hide it from me/ … I’ll be your friend in the daylight again”).
“Democracy” says that hope is coming to the United States (in the form of democracy itself) as things begin to change around us, change that is in part born of faith and prayer in painful moments: “It’s coming from the sorrow in the street/The holy places where races meet/ … Where the women kneel to pray/For the grace of God in the desert here/And the desert far away.”
Songs such as “Donna,” “Gloria” and “Leader of the Landslide” tell the honest story of a broken family, a dysfunctional mother and a little boy who cries out for love from his mom (“All I ever wanted was a mother for the first time”). The progression of songs painfully illustrates how alcoholism and substance abuse can be passed from one generation to the next.
“Jimmy Sparks” and “My Cell” tell the story of Gloria’s son, Jimmy Sparks, who inherited his mother’s destructive habits, including gambling, but who tried his hardest to raise his son after his wife left him and the baby. Obviously, it’s a tragic story; but amid that tragedy and dysfunction, Jimmy’s still trying.
Ultimately, Gloria’s substance abuse damages her children in “Leader of the Landslide,” and they lash out angrily and profanely against her even as they, too, embrace her destructive addictions: “You drove me wild, drove me insane/Drank the whole bottle, forgot my name/ … You blamed it all on your kids/We were young, we were innocent/You told me a lie, f— you for that.” Similar themes are heard in “Left for Denver,” “Life in the City” and “Old Lady.”
“It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy for You” tells the story of a man who is heart-broken after his lover leaves him, which prompts him to turn to substance abuse and contemplate suicide: “Yeah, it wasn’t easy to be happy for you/yeah, I took the poison, praying you’d feel it too/ … Yeah, I wrapped my neck and prayed that you’d feel the noose.”
There are references to destructive habits (“homicidal b–chin”), sexual encounters (“oh baby, we’ll be making love again”) and homosexual lifestyles (“From the ashes of the gay”) in “Democracy.” Profanities, sometimes harsh ones, pop up occasionally throughout the album.
The Lumineers’ third effort is a difficult one to take in. This multigenerational tale of woe follows a family that is, at its core, extremely dysfunctional. What III does accomplish very effectively is showing us the consequences of a parent’s addictions on his or her children. And those consequences are never good.
Frontman Wesley Shultz told Variety that the album’s gritty realism was inspired by a family member’s struggle with alcoholism, and how difficult it was to help that person:
“Trying to love an addict out of drinking, or put them in rehab, or using any resource you have to get them through it, everything we tried failed miserably. We tried to put her in rehab almost a half dozen times overall, and nothing worked. We tried all of these spots for her to succeed in and ‘beat this addiction,’ but it’s become a really humbling experience. That whole willpower thing was thrown out the window really quickly.”
That blurry boundary between desperation and despair is reflected in a series of graphic videos. For nearly every track, there is an accompanying video that depicts the life of each character. However, be aware that the videos are more explicit than the songs themselves, so much so that Variety described them as “shocking.” Violence, substance abuse, sex and breast nudity are all present.
In the end, for all its graphic images and lyrics, the final song on this album gives us a sliver of hope to remember that we have the power to change ourselves—but that message feels almost suffocated by the rest of the album, buried as it is beneath a tragic story of loss.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).