A collection of character-driven narratives that are complex and thought-provoking
Matty Pywell
17:14 16th September 2019

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Welcome to the dysfunctional Sparks family. The centrepiece of The Lumineers conceptual third album, III, which is split in to three chapters, charting the lives of three generations of the Sparks family, chapter 1 (songs 1-3) focussing on Gloria, chapter 2 (songs 4-6) on Junior and chapter 3 (songs 7-10) on Jimmy. It is an album that focusses on a family’s seemingly hereditary sense of misery, forged by various social and environmental factors.

In an age where the longevity of the traditional album cycle is up for much debate, The Lumineers have decided to extend the traditional album experience to include a music video alongside each track, making one short film. It’s an ambitious project to grasp the zeitgeist of binge culture but in musical form, where the album experience becomes one which grips, hooks and inspires people to dedicate time to watch the mini “series” of videos. 

The hierarchy of the family is as follows; Gloria is the mother of Jimmy; whose son is Junior Sparks. The first chapter follows Gloria, who has experienced difficulties in her childhood by having an un-loving relationship with her mother, and later in life when she has a husband and family of her own, struggles to control her alcoholic tendencies as outlined in the opening track ‘Donna’. III has all the hallmarks of The Lumineers at the pinnacle of their lyrical output, creating character-driven narratives that are complex and thought-provoking. 

Gloria’s chapter ends with her traumatic spiral into tragedy as finding solace in drink leads to poor physical and mental health. The whole chapter is laced with melancholy keys and contrastingly rousing acoustic guitar to the lyrical upheaval. Junior Sparks’ chapter comes next and the main themes explored are that of heartbreak (‘It Wasn’t Easy To Be Happy For You’) and his ambiguous relationship with his own mother, who left when he was young. “Is she dead? Is she fine?” he asks on ‘The Leader Of The Landslide’. 

The third chapter details the troubled life of Gloria’s son, Jimmy. The track titled ‘Jimmy Sparks’ is the album’s most emotive, detailing how he is a victim of the destructive influence of his mother Gloria and how his sense of resentment is then projected on to other people he meets in his life. Actively looking for fights to feed violent tendencies, his wife leaves him and Jimmy struggles to look after Junior, later developing a gambling habit and coming into financial trouble. 

Perhaps the self-destructive habits of the Sparks family are best represented by Jimmy’s actions in ‘Jimmy Sparks’, where he tells a young Junior to never pick up hitchhikers because “it’s us or them”, highlighting his lack of empathy and when Jimmy is later found in the distressing scenario of being out in the cold needing a ride, he is ignored by his own son who remembers his father’s selfish advice. The level of character development throughout this album is comparable to that of a twenty-episode TV show. 

The visual aspect of III is a huge gamble, as it risks alienating the traditional album listener. One of the main benefits of consuming music in the album format is the ‘on the go’ aspect, where you can just turn it on and let it play while you go about your daily life, as you would with a playlist. But to get the full context of the narrative, the videos hold key story elements not explored in the audio such as Jimmy’s parentage and scenes of domestic abuse key to Gloria’s story. 

Make no mistake, listening to III with only the audio is still an enthralling and encapsulating experience and if the extra context from the videos was included, the album would probably feel as if it was more of a Kindle E-book reading, but when every track is a key part of the audio experience, it is only as strong as its individual parts. A couple of tracks do leave a little to be desired, such as ‘My Cell’ which captures an essence of trauma and heartbreak but fails to deliver with uncharacteristically repetitive lyricism. When creating a conceptual narrative piece, each song should be capable of adding something tangible to the narrative.

There are also three bonus tracks, which are unrelated to the rest of the albums theme, where The Lumineers have surprisingly made one of the most powerful protest songs of 2019, titled ‘Democracy’. Here, they present the idea of a true democracy, one where minorities, women and the LGBTQ community have an equal voice, constantly assuring that the arrival of true democracy is coming to America like that of Noah’s Ark. Where once this political idealism is realised, it will lead to a prosperous and vibrant society. An idea which could well be distributed across the globe. 

Just as the Sparks family are as much victims of each other as themselves, III is an album that takes interesting conceptual risks that both enhance and hinder the album experience.

III is out now via Decca Records.

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