Let’s be honest, it’s easy to hate The Lumineers. Maybe a little too easy. Their biggest hit was a track called “Ho Hey,” for Christ’s sake. The chorus cheered “I belong with you / you belong with me / in my sweet heart!” It’s tempting to sneer at frontman Wesley Schultz’s impossibly handsome profile and earnest, mannered vocals. The whole crew has a penchant for overalls, looking more like assholes from Williamsburg than southerners. Oh, and they stumbled into fame right around the time Mumford and Sons were annoying us all.
So, sure, it’s pretty easy to hate The Lumineers. But is it fair to? They appeared at a weird point in time when pop radio welcomed this brand of folk-rock, and were basically inescapable for a year or two. What may have been missed, however, is that their self-titled debut was actually a good little album. It was occasionally raucous, fun, and even moving at times. The songwriting was sharp. They won a Grammy or something. And then just kind of disappeared.
Now they’re back with a new album titled Cleopatra. Let’s get this out of the way first: there is no obvious successor to “Ho Hey” on here. And even if they did choose to write another song in that vein, it seems unlikely that pop radio really has a place for that kind of thing anymore. So Cleopatra will probably not sell as well as its predecessor. It also means the Lumineers will avoid being inescapable this time around, for better or worse.
And how’s the music? Against all odds, The Lumineers have once again churned out a respectable batch of tunes. They don’t reinvent the wheel, but that’s not the intention.
It’s actually refreshing that, rather than swing for the fences, they remain humble and charming. Sure, the melodies are simple, and the lyrics fall victim to the occasional cliche, but that’s what makes this band so appealing to the masses. And it’s OK to love music that’s this, well, lovable.
What makes Cleopatra stand out, however, is the storytelling. The character studies and tales of separation never feel cheap or obvious. This is a thoughtful collection of songs that was constructed with love. It’s also unexpectedly bleak, especially in comparison to the rowdiness of their debut. But even when the tempo lags during the album’s back-half, it remains compelling.
The most peculiar thing about Cleopatra is that two of its strongest songs are tacked on as bonus tracks for the deluxe version. “Everyone Requires a Plan” approaches Jason Molina-levels of doomed Americana, and “White Lie” builds to a wonderful refrain without resorting to cheap melodrama. There’s no reason why these songs shouldn’t have been included on the standard release.
So against all odds, The Lumineers avoid the sophomore slump, at least in terms of quality if not commercial success. They probably won’t be able to pull this off again; album three will need to be more adventurous if the band wants to maintain any relevancy. But for now, The Lumineers deserve credit for this elegant, affecting release.