To say that every song The Lumineers have previously released sounds like their 2012 classic, "Ho Hey," is not to say that those songs are bad.
The "Ho Hey" formula is an excellent one that the band has managed to stretch out over multiple albums to great success; but while each pre-2019 song is perfect background noise for picnicking in crowded park while you ignore the ugly view of the highway, they're largely lacking in anything besides the ability to drown out the unwanted noise of daily life.
Now, The Lumineers have blown that formula of catchy inoffensiveness to pieces. Their newest album, III, is a glorious explosion that reminds fans what folk rock is really about: unflinching storytelling. The new project follows one family's story of addiction through three generations. First, we learn the story of Gloria Sparks, an alcoholic mother struggling to reconcile her destructive view of herself with the untainted love her children have for her. Next, we see her story from the point of view of her child, Jimmy, a perspective full of all the resentment and heartache that comes with being the child of an addict. Finally, we see Jimmy all grown up and battling the same demons his mother did, a battle that his own son is forced to witness.
Drummer Jeremiah Fraites has dealt with addiction on a personal level, losing his brother to a heroin overdose as a child. Perhaps fatefully, Fraites' brother was a close friend of Fraites' eventual bandmate, Wes Schultz, which united the two founding members of The Lumineers in shared grief. Fraites told NPR, "I remember my mom woke me up. She said, 'Sweetheart, your brother got arrested last night. He was arrested in a car was around 2:00 in the morning,'"He says. "He'd smoke PCP and he was so high on drugs that he went inside this A&P, which was like a local supermarket out in the East Coast, and he drank Drano which is just an unbelievable thing. I don't know what compelled him to do that. But he was in the ICU for a couple of weeks with second and third degree burns on his throat."
While many artists claim their albums "tell a story," few manage to populate the imagination of the listener the way III does. Fraites described, "With drug addiction or alcoholism it really affects the individual and then it has a sort of fallout effect — similar to the effects of a radiation bomb — over time and over years and years, it continually tends to affect people's loved ones." Ultimately, III is all about the story of this fallout. It's a cinematic, heartbreaking album that is not only musically stunning but lyrically dense and fully-realized.
It's difficult for a folk band to overcome the burden of potential that a Top 5 Billboard hit places on their shoulders. But if there is any justice in the world, The Lumineers will not be remembered for their catchy, vapid love songs, but for the groundbreaking, industry-disrupting art contained in III. And if we're lucky, this is only the beginning—the true beginning—for The Lumineers.