On The Lumineers’ audacious new album, III (Dualtone, September 13), every note, every syllable, and every moment of silence in between is emotionally charged. Through its course, songwriters Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites make it emphatically clear that the arrangements don’t have to be dense for the songs to be intense.
For this pivotal project, Schultz and Fraites brought Simone Felice back into the fold and added violinist Lauren Jacobson. Felice helmed the group’s chart-topping, certified platinum second album, Cleopatra (2016), and Jacobson has now appeared on all three Lumineers’ albums and has played with them since 2011. She has also joined the band as a touring member, joining pianist Stelth Ulvang, bassist/backing vocalist Byron Isaacs and multi-instrumentalist Brandon Miller. (After eight years, cellist/vocalist Neyla Pekarek left the group in 2018 to embark on a solo career.)
The work is titled III not just because it’s The Lumineers’ third full-length album, but more significantly because nine songs are presented in three chapters, each focusing on one of three main characters (in addition to the nine songs the album contains an instrumental plus three more bonus songs that don’t fit in the narrative). The chapters also serves as the visual bookend for a sequential video series comprising the nine tracks, each directed by Kevin Phillips (whose 2017 film Super Dark Times is streaming on Netflix).
III is so taut in its narrative progression that one might assume it was created with premeditation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, the work willed itself into existence out of a series of seemingly unconnected elements that magically locked together into a coherent whole.
These elements included detailed notes presciently scrawled by Schultz in a journal more than a decade ago: depicting both the harrowing experience of trying to save an alcoholic close relative from herself, and Schultz’s memories of a deeply absurd family portrait at Sears when he was a child. Another crucial component was a song commissioned and subsequently rejected by a filmmaker, which features a haunting piano passage repurposed by Fraites from years earlier, when he barely knew how to play the instrument. You can’t make this stuff up—but you can use it to make a musically powerful and psychologically complex artistic statement. For the longtime partners, the third time was indeed the charm, on all kinds of levels.
“The chapter idea started percolating back in 2007,” Schultz explains. “I have notes in my journal from that time about three EPs all tying together, but each one having a theme and forming an album. We were going to call it Love, Loss and Crimes. It just never happened—I had the title, but I didn’t have the songs. We initially considered naming this new album Love, Loss and Crimes, because we thought it had a good sound to it, but we ended up going with the Roman numeral III.”
The Denver-based New Jersey natives started to unlock the code while they were writing the album in the Catskills, where Felice lives and works. The first key was “Jimmy Sparks,” a song as vivid in its imagery and as devastating in its portrayal of an alienated father and son as a short story by Raymond Carver or David Foster Wallace.
“‘Jimmy Sparks’ set us off on a course we hadn’t really intended,” Schultz acknowledges. “I’d written a ton of verses for it, and it just wasn’t working. It was an interesting story, but we wanted there to be a hook; we wanted to find a way to relieve the listener and not just keep pummeling them with verse after verse. The Felice Brothers tell stories really well in their songs, and when Simone heard ‘Jimmy Sparks,’ he said, ‘This is definitely gonna make the record, and here’s how we’re gonna do it.’ At that point it became this interesting puzzle, where we had these clearly defined characters. And when we went backward and looked at the fact that I had some of these themes and characters, I realized we could create a world where they could all live together, that we could create a bigger story—the study of a family.”
In collaboration with Fraites, whose expressive piano plays a central role in the drama and beauty of these songs, Schultz refined and connected the characters who inhabited the songs they’d worked up. There would be a family tree spanning three generations: the grandmother, Gloria Sparks; her son, Jimmy Sparks; and her grandson, Junior Sparks. Each would be the focus of a three-song chapter, with the other two figuring in the unfolding narrative, the time frame constantly shifting.
“When you’re working with someone creatively to come up with ideas,” says Fraites, “your good idea is made great when it’s combined with someone else’s good one. After 14 years of Wes and I collaborating, it seems like strong ideas are just flowing out of us quicker and better than ever before.”
Album and Chapter One opener “Donna” introduces Gloria by way of a litany of details, the point of view shifting line by line. “It’s not the words you say but how you say it,” Schultz sings softly, with Fraites playing a lullaby on the piano. “I saved a picture where your hair was braided/They found your wallet in the cemetery/You told your daughter she was ordinary.”
Daughter Donna gets loaded and has a fling in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in the following “Life in the City,” as the music intensifies. The rousing arrangement of “Gloria,” the album’s first single, belies the lyric’s somber description of Donna’s mother as she sinks deeper into alcoholism.
In “It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy for You,” which begins Chapter Two, Junior’s girlfriend breaks his heart, dumping him for another guy. In “Leader of the Landslide,” Junior watches his father Jimmy sliding into the abyss after his wife Bonnie leaves him, drinking more heavily and getting hooked on gambling. Junior’s mom moves west and starts a new family in “Left for Denver”; the kid reacts by rebelling and getting in trouble.
“My Cell,” the first song in Chapter Three, finds Jimmy alone with his problems in his trailer, with its primitive painted landscapes standing in for actual windows. The climactic “Jimmy Sparks” spans two decades, starting with prison guard Jimmy buckling in the feverish baby son his wife left him with and driving to a gambling casino, and culminating with Junior, now a young man, spotting his father stumbling along the side of the road, barefoot in the snow, and driving right past this pathetic shell of a man—and by extension, this ruined family. “It was 3 AM,” Schultz repeatedly reminds us.
The piano instrumental “April” provides momentary relief from the emotional carnage, leading into the final song, “Salt and the Sea.” It opens with Schultz strumming his acoustic guitar as if his life depended on it, as he sings of a lifetime of regret and a deep yearning for resolution. In the middle section, Fraites’ crystalline piano passage enters, intimating the unattainable beauty of a life unlived, as Schultz gets to the heart of the matter. “I’ll be your friend in the daylight again,” he imagines, his voice rising with the bittersweet melody. “There we will be, like an old enemy/Like the salt and the sea.”
“That piano line was the first creative idea I ever wrote,” Fraites recalls. “At the time I didn’t know much about the piano and was just messing around. And for me to find that idea again and put it into the last song of the album, which I think is one of the better songs we’ve ever written together, was one of those ‘Oh, wow’ moments, as if the stuff unearthed today from over a decade ago was just waiting for this album.”
“It’s funny how life works,” Schultz says of the convoluted gestation of “Salt and the Sea.” “We were opening for U2, and M. Night Shyamalan was backstage. We struck up a friendship with him, and when he was making Glass, he said, ‘I need a certain kind of song for when the credits roll.’ He described the movie, and so we tried on a different hat when we wrote what became ‘Salt and the Sea.’ It’s got this James Bond chord progression, and it has this tension running through it. We had no plans to put that song on the album, but once we’d written it for him, I said to Jer, ‘Man, I really hope we can put it on our record’ We liked it so much. And then, as luck would have it, he told us it didn’t work in the movie, and that was more than fine for us. So we accidentally got pushed into that direction, and I think ‘Salt and the Sea’ fits well with the energy of ‘My Cell’ and ‘Jimmy Sparks.’ There’s a darkness to that last part of the record.”
Fans don’t usually associate The Lumineers with darkness. “When people hear [the 2012 crossover hit] ‘Ho Hey,’ this simple sunny song, “Fraites says.. “But that’s okay, that was our intent. It sounded minimalistic because we wanted it to feel that way—we wanted that vibe.” But that was seven years ago, and the partners’ lives have changed considerably since then. In 2018, both became first-time fathers of sons, born two months apart. Schultz offers an analogy for his maturation as an artist and as a human being.
“I’m reading the Harry Potter series; Rowlings’ books get progressively darker, and it seems like books age like a person ages,” he notes. “And in a funny way, that’s part of our ambition. We came from a seemingly light place, even though if you listen to our earlier records there’s some dark subject matter—it just sounds happier. We’re allowing our palate to become a little darker, and I feel like it still works and it’s believable, which is a fine line to walk—you don’t want to seem like you’re trying too hard. But my favorite bands—The Beatles, The Stones with Exile on Main St., Dylan with Blood on the Tracks—always gradually pushed me in different directions without me realizing it. We could’ve probably put ‘Gloria’ on any one of the records and it would fit, but ‘My Cell’ and ‘Salt and the Sea’ wouldn’t, and ‘Jimmy Sparks’ especially wouldn’t. Like, what the hell is this? So trying to carve out a place for those darker songs was the big challenge.”
“First and foremost,” Fraites adds, “when Wes and I write, we just care about writing a good song; the music always comes first. This collection of songs worked out in a beautiful way, and I feel with this album we’ve really hit our stride.”