A rise to fame as exponential as that experienced by The Lumineers in 2012 can be a double-edged sword. Fame definitely has its perks (money, power, travel, performing for huge crowds) but it can take a huge toll as it is often fleeting and a huge rise leaves you with much further to fall. The Lumineers were launched from the relative obscurity of touring the open mic scene in Denver to the global spotlight in a matter of months. Touring the world, being nominated for Grammys and playing some of the biggest festivals in Australia, the UK and the US surrounded by hundreds of thousands of adoring fans became their reality.
The trio, Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites and Neyla Pekarek, poured their last four years worth of experiences into one charming and intimate album filled with engaging stories told through the same catchy folk-rock that made their first album so successful.
The band spent six months in a small house in Denver writing Cleopatra, which explores the effects fame can have on people’s lives and the struggles faced by those who see it as the ideal and give up their morality, family and friends or dignity to achieve it. Singer and guitarist, Wesley Schultz says they wanted to tear away the fake, generic stories and “recycled words that don’t really mean anything” to create an album that was true to the band and explored some of the deeper, darker aspects of this shiny, wonderful world they’d been thrust into.
Their isolation in Denver was an attempt to replicate their headspace when recording the first album which was written before their rise to success. Schultz says, “Back when we were working as bus boys to support our music, I felt invisible to the world. I remember thinking I could be naked and pick up a plate and no one would even notice. That’s an interesting place to write from and I’m wary of losing it.” A far cry from where the band are now, but remaining grounded despite their success was important to them. Schultz says, “We wanted to take our time, strip it back to its raw and honest essentials, and make an album we believe in.” Well, they took their sweet time putting it out but in my opinion Cleopatra was definitely worth the wait.
On first listen as a whole it came across as slower, more melancholy than their self-titled debut album, more Stubborn Love than Ho Hey. It’s a huge task to follow up an album of that calibre but I think they’ve done an awesome job of balancing the band’s timeless sound with different and more complex subject matter.
The first single Ophelia tells the story of fame personified as a dangerous temptress who captures the mind of the subject like a drug. Schultz, who writes the lyrics for the band, includes the ominous warning, “Heaven help the fool that falls in love.”
It opens with the well-worn but accurate cliche “When I was young, I should’ve known better,” punctuated by the cheerful clapping and foot-stomping that endeared us to the band in the first place. A perfect introduction into the album, Ophelia shows The Lumineers’ ability to intertwine a complicated story with a cheerful melody and upbeat, sing-along chorus. The piano ties the whole thing together and adds a sense of lightness and acceptance that this is a bad move but we’re going along for the ride anyway and let’s hope everything will be okay.
The title track, Cleopatra was described by Schultz as “the bedrock of the album.” The song is about looking past the illusions people create about themselves, whether it be celebrities or everyday people on social media, and finding the truth about them – their core. This came from an interaction Schultz had with a “bad ass” taxi driver who told him her story of immense personal tragedy without the expectation of sympathy.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Schultz said, “We live in a country full of Instagram and pictures of life more beautiful than you ever though it could be and she comes from the opposite perspective and she doesn’t ask for pity. She has a willingness to confront life.”
The song is driven by the lyrics and the story of this woman who seems to embody the band’s need to learn to adapt to their new lives while staying true to their roots. It is filled with emotion and has a nice slow build throughout and but didn’t really strike me as a big moment on the album, sound wise.
My favourite songs are the opening track Sleep on the Floor and Gun Song. Both are dramatic with big choruses that got endlessly stuck in my head. Schultz said, “We want songs you can wrap your arms around” and for me, these songs are just that. Sleep on the Floor is about breaking out of a small town (something I can relate to) and Gun Song is a suspenseful, goose-bump inducing journey that builds and builds. It’s like being surrounded by a marching band hiking up a mountain – a good one for anyone who loved The Big Parade. There are moments in both where Schultz’s voice breaks you can feel every bit of his triumph and pain.
“One day I pray I’ll be more than my father’s son, but I don’t own a single gun”
You can imagine it being performed exactly like this:
There is a sense that Cleopatra is split in two halves. The first is filled with passion, suffering, celebration and longing and the second is more quiet and contemplative, a sort of reflection on what the listener heard in the first half. Soft guitar picking and introspective thoughts are woven through these songs which are beautiful and brooding but didn’t capture my interest as much.
Overall I think Cleopatra is an album that shows off the band’s ability to do something other than cute, catchy songs. It demonstrates that they appreciate their new position but are determined to stay grounded and not to be corrupted or made too cynical by changes in their lives.
Schultz says, “That spotlight can seem like an endless buffet, but in reality, you’re just shiny, bright, and new to people for a quick moment — and then you have the rest of you life to live.”
I would strongly recommend Cleopatra to fans of Mumford and Sons, folk in general, wooden porches and grassy fields.
Despite finishing this review, I’ll be keeping the album on repeat and hanging out for The Lumineers to announce some shows Down Under.
Cleopatra is out today and you can buy it here.