Photo: Danny Clinch / Courtesy of the artist

The Lumineers Get Cerebral on ‘III’

Gone are the days of the Lumineers' pop-standards and monosyllabic earworms. III is a cerebral and disquieting portrait of addiction.

The Lumineers
13 September 2019

The underpinnings of addiction are impossible to identify. The complexity associated with addiction and those suffering from the disease is so vast, lesser musicians would shy away from undertaking the subject. But in the Lumineer’s III, the band examines the effects of addiction across the fictional Sparks family. Gone are the days of the Lumineers’ pop-standards and monosyllabic earworms. III is a cerebral and disquieting portrait of addiction.

The album opens with the eponymous “Donna“, the mother to the main character, Gloria Sparks. Donna is a woman battling alcoholism and mental illness. The subsequent “Life in the City” and “Gloria” shifts the lens to Donna’s daughter Gloria Sparks. Gloria, based on Wesley Schultz’s family member, is ravished by alcoholism. Whereas the lyrics don’t fully capture Gloria’s psychology, the video depicts the character suffering from a similar mental illness as her mother’s. Both women are defined by periods of mania followed by inactivity, all extenuated by heavy drinking and dangerous behavior.

At first, “Gloria” sounds misplaced, but in actuality, the song aptly depicts the psychological contours associated with addiction. The jingly chords and catchy lyrics are unlike the rest of the album’s bleak and minor-chord driven music. But “Gloria” presents a facade; the buoyancy is akin to an addict’s attempt at hiding their addiction with fabricated happiness. Moreover, “Gloria’s” tempo is reminiscent of Donna’s periods of frenzy and inactivity, a commonality engendered by so many grappling with addiction. Both Gloria and Donna embody the intricacies of struggling with illness while fully illustrating the repercussions of alcohol dependency. As such, the Lumineers offer a thoughtful and compassionate portrait of addiction’s cycle.

The next three tracks focus on Gloria’s grandson Junior Sparks, battling his challenges with dependency and mental illness. The Lumineers foreshadow Junior’s sorrowful existence in Donna’s narratives when it’s established she “always hated the name, Junior”. Here the band is explicit, almost heavy-handed, in establishing the album’s interconnections. Junior’s narrative reestablishes addiction’s cyclicality with references to being in eighth grade and “you spiked the Gatorade / And it was all for, for the weekend” as heard in “Left for Denver“. Throughout, Junior’s longing is palpable, especially when he expresses the heartfelt plea for a mother for the first time”. Junior is positioned as a character that demands empathy when he laments “Fate has dealt me a lonely blow” in “Leader of the Landslide“. Schultz’s vocal delivery is emotive, thereby creating an affinity between musician, character, and listener.

The album concludes with the narrative of Jimmy Sparks, Gloria’s son, and Junior’s father. Jimmy is an abuser, chronic gambler, alcohol, and pill addict. His life is defined by suffering, violence, and mental illness. Through “Jimmy Sparks” listeners learn that after Junior was born “the mother had other reasons to live / She left the baby with a note on the bed”. The image of a deserted child is frequently re-emphasized in the music video. When Gloria is succumbing to her addiction, infant Jimmy is often depicted crawling through the house alone or sitting next to his mother’s incapacitated body. The theme of isolation is revisited in the melancholic “My Cell“. Schultz’s voice is again harrowing as he repeats, “My cell / My pretty little cell / All alone.” The mania exhibited by Gloria and Donna reappears in Jimmy’s pressured speech. The album ends with the track “Salt and the Sea” avowing addiction as a disease rather than a problem of will.

III is accompanied by a ten-part music video, essentially a short film, directed by Kevin Phillips, creator of Netflix’s “Super Dark Times”. The video, which screened as a whole at the Toronto International Film Festival, is fearless and authentic. From just listening to the album, some listeners might be able to mitigate the weight of the Spark’s addiction. Yet the visual representation demands the viewer bear witness to the family’s trauma.

There is no emotional reprieve in III. As such, the album might seem inaccessible to some, schmaltzy to others. But III is a cinematic album undertaking a complicated subject. III and the accompanying music video are culturally important points of contact with the realities of addiction. As such, the Lumineers deliver the album with compassion and clemency.

RATING 8 / 10