Rebelling against the “sophomore slump” and the ad-friendly sound that gave them notoriety, The Lumineers’ sophomore album, “Cleopatra”, is astute and nostalgic. The trio’s three year hiatus complimented their songwriting, but in their quest to offer something with fewer sing-alongs and more authenticity, the end result feels tempered.
Subscribing to the idea that immediate accessibility translates to a weaker artistic product is tired and pretentious. The band’s 2012, insta-hit, “Ho Hey” didn’t recreate the wheel, but few can argue it wasn’t a damn catchy tune and the Lumineers shouldn’t be punished or pigeonholed for that success. That said, the song saturated the airwaves so much that summer that it became easy to dismiss and dissect the elementary nature of the band’s reception-friendly tunes.
Often mentioned in the same sentence, Mumford & Sons lived under the same magnifying glass and subgenre as The Lumineers in 2012. It’s hard to say what caused the Sons to eventually plug in and go electric, estranging their own fans, but it may have been the urge to combat the general consensus, which is what, to a much smaller degree, may have happened here on Cleopatra as well.
While the record starts out with the trio’s signature sound palette; The pitter-patter of piano keys, the hip bump of the tambourine, the hand claps and mounting harmonies on songs like “Ophelia”, “Sleep on the Floor” and “Cleopatra”, it suddenly comes to an instrumental halt, and the songs begin to bleed together. The album ceases its identity as a Lumineers record and suddenly feels like lead singer,Wesley Shultz’s solo record.
Piano-driven, easy listening, the latter half the record’s content is lost under the guise of pretty, but redundant strumming and strings. It’s easy to ignore the poignancy of the lyrics without the subtle momentum of the percussive sounds the group is known for.
Whereas 2012’s The Lumineers, was a more introspective look at the standard narrative of sex and sadness, here Shultz and company refreshingly reflect on the stories of the people around them. The allusions are smarter with song titles named after fictional heroines and the commentary is far more reflective. Throughout Cleopatra there are a lot of references to home, tstagnancy, fame, and looking back; this is fitting for a band that had the last three years to reflect on their huge, immediate success.
A commentary on suffocating small towns, “Sleep on the Floor” and “Angela” reflect on the internal decay that occurs when monotony takes hold. “My Eyes” details the effects of fame on the easily consumed, “You always confused your servants for friends.” Interestingly, there are also numerous mentions of moral judgement by religious figures, attacking the sins of the flesh.
The lyricism isn’t Cleopatra’s only strong side. There are definite high points in the slower moments like the Americana tinged “Gale Song” and the Buckleyesque “My Eyes”, where we get a hint of some really lovely intimacy that, if expounded on (with a bit more grit), could really amount to something captivating.
If the Lumineers debut record was a representation of their metaphorical college years, Cleopatra is definitely their more mature, but confused, post-grad understanding of fame.