“Gloria, you crawled up on your cross/Gloria, you made us sit and watch,” sing The Lumineers, weaving the tragic, all too-human tale of a family who lost their loved ones to addiction. Gritty, authentic, vulnerable — that’s The Lumineers’s new album, III, in a nutshell. Holding on to the familiar folksy flair of their earlier music, III would appear nothing too special. It’s the underlying thematic discussion of the darker side of human vulnerability that adds the “wow factor” to the album. A stark contrast to the band’s cheerful first hit, “Hi-Ho,” III welcomes a more mature, more honest version of The Lumineers.
Drawing from their personal experience, the band explores not only how addiction harms the individual, but more so how addiction destroys the collective. The album is structured in three parts, with three songs per part (and an added three bonus songs). Before the music even begins, the recurrence of the number three already steeps the album in symbolism, drawing from religious connotations, to the three stages of life, a beginning, middle and end. The progression of each track builds off the previous one, branching through a family marred by addiction. The broken-down structure helps to emphasize these core themes. Addiction is like an infection, spreading from person to person, loved one to loved one, until the entire world is lost in the haze.
Part one of the record follows two women who struggle with addiction. The first song, “Donna,” explores the archetype of the mother. A mother is someone who cares for others, who is a pillar of the family. Yet, the roles of mother and child are switched in this case. “Hold my hand now, time to / Go to bed, it’s way too late,” The Lumineers sing as Donna’s addiction drafts her into the role of the child, and her unnamed child becomes the caregiver. “Gloria” also explores the warped relationship between parent and child under the weight of addiction, the verses sung by the child and the chorus sung by the mother, Gloria. Gloria sings “Did you know me when I was younger then?/I could take the whole world then,” emphasizing how addiction can steal away an identity, a life. Yet, despite the tragedy of part one — which captures the descent into addiction’s stormy waters — the classic high-energy feel of The Lumineers simultaneously uplifts the song, added a vague sense of hope.
Part two and three continue to build on the rest of the album’s themes, emphasizing especially how addiction is often cyclical in nature, moving through generations. The song “Jimmy Sparks” conveys this the best, spinning a tale of a father who falls to gambling in order to care for his son. Throughout the song, the father advises his son that “It’s us or them,” ignoring the helpless in favor of helping only himself. Yet, by the song’s final notes, the full circle comes to a close, with the son driving past his homeless, penniless father begging by the road, echoing “Cause it’s us or them/‘Cause it’s me or him.”
At the end of the day, The Lumineers’ III finds its greatest strength in its relevance. At a time when the opioid crisis still ravages America, e-cigarettes dangerously beckon the young and drugs continue to remain an inevitable part of growing up American, this spotlight on the complexities and enduring poison of addiction is vital. Listen to III, first for its authentic, classic folk songs and brand of charm, second for the lesson it can teach us — a lesson learned never too early and never too late.