The Lumineers in 2016: We’re All Big Kids Now

By Charlotte Freccia ’19

I know it’s like the Number One Commandment of How To Be Good At Liking Music — Thou shalt not listen to, much less actively like, a band that got famous for having its song accompany an earnest, heavily light-leaked montage of a barn wedding on a Bing commercial — and being Good At Liking Music is very important to me but goddammit my soft, soft indie-dudebro-loving heart just can’t get enough of The Lumineers. I’m not even sorry that I’m not sorry. I liked them when they came out with their self-titled debut in late 2012, but back in those days we were in the thick of the (sadly) short-lived era known as “folk revival” during which it was a bit more socially acceptable to express admiration for bands that made liberal use of the banjo. I guess even then I understood, though, that The Lumineers were a little gimmicky and I imagined that their influence and playability would be short-lived. Nonetheless, I unexpectedly got pretty heavily back into the band this winter after The Stairwells performed an appropriately unironic cover of their cover of The Talking Heads’s “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” which I not surprisingly loved and which inspired me to take another listen (or 12) to the Deluxe Edition of The Lumineers and to get excited for the release of a second album by the Denver-based band.

I was happily surprised that this band subverted my expectations in the production of a––so far as I can tell––mature and nuanced sophomore album, Cleopatra, which was released last week. The leading single from the album, “Ophelia,” echoed the band’s breakout hit “Ho Hey” down to the dominant sounds of upbeat, Ragtime-esque piano and tambourine and the rhythmic group chorus. “Ophelia” remains a standout on the album, but make no mistake: on Cleopatra, the old blissfully ignorant, Americana-devoted Lumineers who sang of college-bar flirtation are gone and in their place are three disillusioned and vaguely existential twenty-somethings who make music with lots of spaces, lots of distance. The endearing group vocals of The Lumineers are gone; here, singer-guitarist Wesley Schultz sings alone and frequently of foreboding Shakespearian leading ladies who, like himself, are not quite sure what to make of their lives despite ostensible distinction and success.
Something I’ve long admired about this band is that their music seems crafted not for production but for live recording, and that holds true on this album. Its draftiness, its imperfection, feel newly melancholic and powerful on Cleopatra.  A friend of mine told me that this album makes her feel weary and grown up, and she doesn’t know if it’s because the last time she seriously listened to this band she was a sophomore in high school, but I think there’s something to that: the opening song, “Sleep on the Floor,” is a sunrise, certainly, but one that wakes you up alone and much too early. “Gun Song” is reminiscent of another yearning, slow-burning ballad by another Band That I Loved In High School To Which I Remain Unironically Devoted Though It Has Become Less Cool To Be So that was released this year with the word “gun” in the title: “Hold No Guns” by Death Cab For Cutie. Both seem to ruminate on the futility of love in the face of infallible sincerity. The album’s title song, “Cleopatra,” is thematically similar to “Gun Song” in that its hapless heroine, a beautiful and relatively successful actress, spurns a would-be lover despite her premonition that she will “die alone” (!!!). (Side note––I was disappointed with this band when I first glimpsed the cover art and saw there a notably white woman dressed in ancient Egyptian garb, but that the song is about an actress playing Cleopatra rather than the formidable (and distinctly African) empress herself makes this bit of cultural appropriation slightly more acceptable if eye-rollingly predictable from a band that would surely make Sun Kil Moon’s master list of “Whitest Bands I’ve Ever Heard”). The album closes with “Patience,” a simple minute-and-a-half wordless piano coda that sets the weary sun on this bittersweet set of songs that are musically and emotionally resonant and herald the emergence of the somber, disillusioned band that once made, so innocently, the song “Flowers In Your Hair” and now must acknowledge the hard truths of the life on the road.

Cleopatra is hard and heavy and much more complex than The Lumineers’s first attempt which is to say that it might be slightly more cool but a hell of a lot less fun to like the band in 2016 than it was in 2012.

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