The Lumineers have garnered a large following for their folk-rock sound that inevitably triggers a nostalgic emotional trip which settles over the body, akin to the chill from a wet coat in a summer rain: hot then cold then warm again. You may be familiar with some of their music that has made a home on many radio stations and playlists around Birmingham, the hearty-thump of “Ho Hey” or the haunting swan song of “Cleopatra.” Forgive the poetics. This is to say, The Lumineers do not shy away from the emotional experience that music can, and should, be.
III is no exception to their sentimental craftsman work. The new album and accompanying music videos feature songs that tackle the hard realities of drug abuse, familial turmoil, and broken households, problems that are unfortunately often yoked together. The songs are segmented into three chapters and tell the story of three generations (hence the name) of the Sparks family, a fictional counterpart to the real families that collapse over these hurdles every day.
Although the Sparks family is fictional, the emotions with the songs are genuine. The album is inspired by a shared grief of the band’s two leads, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites. In a narrow timeframe in 2001, Shultz lost his father to illness and Fraites lost his older brother (a friend of Schultz) to drug overdose.
“Our bio reads that my brother passed away from a drug overdose and then, out of the ashes of that, came Wes. It’s true. Wes was friends with my older brother Joshua and he did die in 2001,” Fraites explained in an interview with The Sun.
Schultz, who wrote all the songs on the album, based the Sparks family on the experiences of his own family. “I was trying to keep some level of anonymity to the people I may be singing about, but still referencing real events. I always feel like that makes things the most interesting. It’s pretty hard to fake the truth,” he told Billboard.
Infusing these stories into the album has paid off in a big way. The themes of the album are those that many people impacted by addiction can empathize with. While this blog post does not have the space to take a deep dive into the narrative of III, below are a few brief breakdowns of three chapters from the album.
Donna (Part 1 of 10) — The Lumineers
“Donna,” the first chapter of the album, centers around Gloria Sparks and her relationship with her mother, Donna. Gloria’s substance abuse is heavily impacted by the failed relationship with her mother. Lines like, You told your daughter she was ordinary, and, You couldn’t sober up to hold a baby, drive the point home. Gloria has unresolved emotional trauma that feeds her addiction. Unfortunately for the rest of the Sparks family, these unresolved issues only exacerbate the disease that would come to affect them all.
Gloria (Part 3 of 10) — The Lumineers
Perhaps Gloria’s desperation needs no further introduction than the quick cuts of her unscrewing a bottle or her downing alcohol with a baby in her arms. This song and video cast a spotlight on the frantic second-to-second battle against addiction: the overdose in the living room, the panicked sprint down hospital hallways, the relapse that repeats the cycle. These experiences capture our attention because they are vivid and honest.
Shultz said on Twitter, “Gloria is an addict. Her character was inspired by a member of my family, and no amount of love or resources could save her. She’s now been homeless for over a year. Loving an addict is like standing among the crashing waves, trying to bend the will of the sea. – Wesley”. While we praise Shultz for his honesty, we would like to clarify that Gloria is an exception to the rule; Love and resources help, and we are happy to connect you to them.
Leader of the Landslide (Part 5 of 10) — The Lumineers
The patterns of substance abuse continue for Jimmy (Gloria’s son) and his son Junior. Jimmy is seen topping of his morning coffee with alcohol. Junior seems withdrawn. The contrast between his old life when his mother was still around and the new life of abuse and instability show the effects of untreated substance abuse.
The strangers doing drugs off the coffee table and drinking in the living room show how unordinary and traumatizing the home life is for Junior. Jimmy was raised through Gloria’s abuse, and the experiences were more consequential than positive. While we sympathize with Junior, we can also understand (at least in part) Jimmy’s self-destructive behavior as he holds out hope for the return of Junior’s mother.
These blurred lines establish “Leader of the Landslide” as particularly challenging. The song highlights the complex gray area in dealing with substance disorder. Lines from Junior’s perspective reflect the helplessness many family members feel as they struggle to help someone with substance abuse, You were wrong, I was right. Didn’t matter in a fight…Fate has dealt me a lonely blow, I said I tried to help, but only hurt. In the end I made it worse.
III is a powerful depiction of the multi-generational effects of substance abuse. It shows how unresolved emotional trauma and confrontational family relationships can transform a substance dependency into a raging flame of abuse. Although listeners only have 6 of the 10 parts for the album to listen to, the release of the final chapters on September 13th promises to excite fans new and old.
While many of you may feel helpless at the state of affairs in the Sparks family, and maybe even events in your own life, The Lumineers’ music and career proves there is relief after hardship. Music can be a cathartic experience, but rarely do we get an album that speaks directly to the pain felt by those struggling with a substance abuse disorder. So if you need a pick-me-up, or you just want to revel in the complicated emotions of surviving, you can let the ambivalent vocals and folksy tune wash over you: hot then cold then warm again.