Album Review

The Lumineers' Roving American Literature

The Lumineers - Cleopatra

The Lumineers write songs with pores, songs that age, and songs can sustain meaning—or diversify meaning—over the course of years.

Over the course of four years, to be precise.

Proof of that exists on the band's rustic, self-titled debut, which, save for a few rogue YouTube videos and a Hunger Games soundtrack feature (“Gales Song”), has been the singular source of sustenance for fans since 2012. In many ways, though, that drought has reaffirmed the quality of the debut, as the wait for a follow up required fans to return to the well, to fall in love again, to take those songs in from different vantage points to test how the album held up as it—or they—matured.

That patience is largely unfamiliar in today’s musical landscape, but during the interim, the heart of the Lumineers’ audience reacquainted themselves with the original album's familiar words and settings. They treated it like a well-worn paperback, turning The Lumineers from an introduction into a classic: there was something fresh and persistent in the way energy met timelessness, combining sparsely-layered musicianship with earnest songwriting, and so it became a promise that the wait for whatever came next would be worth it.

Now, four years later, that patience has been rewarded with Cleopatra, a collection that reads like roving American literature and sounds like a serendipitous next step, where a hollow-bodied electric meets the thoughtful, "less is more" craftsmanship that gave the first batch of stories their staying power.

Cleopatra’s cover is in line with the band’s modern-nostalgia aesthetic, with a black and white picture of silent film star Theda Bera dressed as the album’s titular character, circa 1917, and staring forth with the Mona Lisa’s knowing mystery: from first glance, even before a note is played, the image punctuates the album with the feeling that this is a relic of a bygone era—a record as an event, rather than something to be added to a playlist and put on shuffle.

Cleopatra opens on that note, with “Sleep On the Floor,” which encapsulates the scope of what’s to follow: there are tempo changes, a chunky lead guitar, and building percussion that rings out into a night where its characters—Eleanor and the narrator—make an escape that once seemed futile--“Forget what Father Brennan said/We were not born in sin/Leave a note on your bed/Let your mother know you're safe/And by the time she wakes/We'll have driven through the state/We'll have driven through the night, baby come on.”

“Sleep On the Floor” has the huge, resonant sound an opener should, setting Cleopatra’s stage, and introducing Eleanor as the first female character on an album filled with memorable female characters: its first three releases—“Ophelia,” “Cleopatra,” and “Angela”—follow shortly thereafter, and land indelible sonic and lyrical punches, which is a credit to the elevated level of songwriting on the sophomore release.

Highlighted by Jeremiah Fraites’s long-stored ivory melody, “Ophelia” is both intense and hauntingly spare, a surface love story standing in place of the tangible dangers of fame and success. Wesley Schultz meets the piano with with a strained, pastoral croon that transmits emotion that goes beyond the song’s lyrics, lining the entirety of the track with something that’s not quite pain, but not quite solace, either.

That sonic melancholy is quickly undone by “Cleopatra,” though, which may be the best representation of Schultz’s writing as something bold and inventive, as it not only steers away from cliché, but manages exceptionally distinct imagery that cuts and shakes long after a song is over, with stanzas like, “And I left the footprints, the mud stained on the carpet/And it hardened like my heart did when you left town/But I must admit it, that I would marry you in an instant/Damn your wife, I'd be your mistress, just to have you around.”

On a B-Side of the album’s Deluxe Edition, the “Cleopatra (Acoustic Demo)” hears Fraites instruct Schultz to “picture a guy in a meadowlark bar, just like drunk, and he’s a hundred percent vocally, but the guitar work just is not really impressive” before they begin to play. It’s a complex explanation, but upon hearing the song’s eventual development, that’s exactly what it is: “Cleopatra” shoots straight forth with unapologetic catchiness, mixing its consuming rhythms with truly heartbreaking lyrics that wade below the surface, the depth of which is initially obscured by the track’s infectious energy.

Lyrically, however, “Cleopatra” is amongst the album’s most resounding, inspired by a female taxi driver in the Republic of Georgia, who recounted her life story to Schultz through translator, without the expectation that it could ever be immortalized an ocean away.

At times, however, Cleopatra is more subdued than the debut, but in a way that is technical, without taking the heart out of the boot-laden foot-stomp of the first record: “Angela” is that way, with its initially-gentle guitar underpinning a third-person narrative about a tragic character that’s “spent her whole life running away.” Quickly, though, the coffee shop sound bubbles over into open chords and free spinning choral breaks, where Fraites’s kick drum re-emerges as an axis on which the band’s anthems can spin.

“In the Light” is much the same with its dynamics and rising action, picking up instruments along the way, and sounding like an Americana-spin on a modern Springsteen track, with shades of Schutlz and Fraites’s shared Jersey roots coming through in the song’s climax; “My Eyes” is a similar build, but more brooding and road-weary, with a ragtime melody laid over the faint guitar that sits behind Schultz’s pensive vocals.

Though there are tracks that shine more obviously bright, “Long Way From Home” is a standout, because of—or in spite of—its simplicity: for a group with a clear admiration for Dylan, “Long Way From Home” is perhaps the most direct line between the inspiration and the act on either record, with Schutlz playing an arrhythmic finger style that falls somewhere between “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Tangled Up In Blue.”

Conversely, “Where the Skies Are Blue” (Deluxe Edition) is a vocal nod to Dylan, rather than an instrumental one, with a distinctly southern sound akin to John Wesley Harding. On “Long Way From Home,” however, Schutlz makes the sound his own, approaching it with signature ebbs-and-flows that traverse near-speech and a scratchy wail: it provides the singular intimacy of a man and his guitar, a feature lessened on this album after the introduction of new touring members.

Similarly, “The Gun Song” is not built to be a crossover hit, but has the architecture of a folk staple passed down from another generation: with its swaying, acoustic strums and almost Revolutionary-era snare, the song is built for another time, but resonates in the present as it captures the autobiographical snapshot of Schultz finding his deceased father’s Smith and Wesson pistol in a sock drawer. That evocative imagery is combined with the evergreen innocence of being someone’s child, and a distinctly personal history, beyond Schultz’s, permeates the ambiguity of song. It doesn’t, however, require resolution: the track is a story we’ve always known, a feature that was inherent to the debut, and persists on Cleopatra — an album that proves the old adage that good things come to those who wait.

In Cleopatra, the Lumineers have produced a collection that will prove a hallmark of the current American sound and of the current folk renaissance. It’s classically written, but with a handcrafted liveliness that is distinctly them — something to return to for four more years, and for the decades to follow.

But for now—for the present—let’s call it what it is: four years in the making, Cleopatra is a band we sorely missed, returning in poetic triumph.