A faded gray farmhouse sits in an isolated field. A glass bottle shatters into glaring shards against a husband’s forehead. A piano burns and smokes in a lonely front yard. A woman sprints away from the scene of a car crash.
These weren’t the first images that came into my head while listening to The Lumineers’ new album III, but after watching the songs’ accompanying short film, I found it impossible to separate the haunting images of a family struggling with addiction and abuse from what I had first interpreted as a chill indie sound.
When The Lumineers’ latest album III was released on September 13th, I started listening to it on repeat, loving the acoustic folk sound, the piano interludes, the gravelly voice of lead singer Wesley Schultz. The atmosphere brought me back to their debut album and their first major single “Ho Hey” released in 2012. It reminded me of vinyl records, cloudy days, burning candles. But, the more I listened to the lyrics “living life in the city, it will never be pretty” and “my pretty little cell” the more I began to notice the darker tones to the album—that there was something more lurking beneath the sound I had so expected and loved.
The cinematic adaptation of III—which was directed by Kevin Phillips and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8th, 2019—completely overturned my initial perceptions of the album’s significance. The short film comprises music videos for the ten tracks, which were released in three “chapters.” Each chapter and its coinciding videos are dedicated to a different character, and a subsequent generation of the same family: Gloria Sparks, Junior Sparks, and Jimmy Sparks. These characters’ names not only double as the titles for three of the album’s songs, but also create the focus of each “chapter.” Each song’s music video delves further into this inter-generational struggle of addiction and the incalculable effects it has not only on the individual but also all of that person’s surrounding relationships.
“Life In The City” was one of the first singles I listened to from this newest album, and these lyrics, in particular, would bounce around my head as I strolled around campus, still feeling that fresh semester sense of hope. With the song’s staccato chords, I imagined moving to a new city, new beginnings, taking everything as it comes. I imagined a bright fall day, with the memory of summer sun still palpable. What I didn’t envision was a dark, dingy dive bar lit only by dim holiday lights; a young woman sinking deeper into her isolation through drugs and anonymous sex. The latter is what the song’s visual component depicts, the camera’s lingering moments on Gloria’s face evoking a sense of spiraling, of clutching at open air. When listening to the song again after watching the short film, I couldn’t help but recall her character’s long-drawn face reflected in the grimy bus window, and I started to think that the song felt more like the end of fall—like bare branches and faded red brick.
Admittedly, when I first listened to the song “My Cell,” I heard the refrain as “my pretty little self.” Of course, when I realized it was saying “my pretty little cell,” the song took on an entirely different meaning. But even recognizing these lyrics hadn’t prepared me for the intense scene of assault represented in the song’s video, the slow-motion shots of the attack ironically paired with the light piano trill. I found these lyrics and accompanying video to represent the symbolic prison in which the character, Jimmy Sparks, finds himself as a result of his struggle with alcoholism—cut off and isolated from his own relationships.
The videos and characters of III are raw, aching, captivating. Their stories overlap, inform one another, and their visual representations call back to certain images in the same way a refrain develops its intensity through repetition. For me, this narrative interwoven throughout the album’s tracklist, and the painful, stark images of the videos give the folk sound an even more significant weight, and I can’t help but recall these images as I listen again to the album now. As I looked more critically at the lyrics and the accompanying film, they reminded me that the initial appearance someone gives does not always immediately reveal their truth. While III—if nothing else—is an enjoyable listen for its familiar folk sound, the thematic lyrics and visual accompaniments completely rewrote my expectations, reminding me to look deeper, listen deeper, and not take the stories I consume through art and music at face value.