It took four years for The Lumineers to follow up their platinum-plus, multi-Grammy-nominated, self-titled debut – which spent 46 weeks on the Billboard 200 and peaked at #2 — but Cleopatra is well worth the wait. After exploding onto the scene with their monster single, “Ho Hey” (which spent a staggering 62 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #3) and its follow-up, “Stubborn Love” (recently featured on President Barack Obama’s Spotify playlist), The Lumineers spent a solid three years touring six of the seven continents. During that time, The Lumineers – whose original members Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites founded the band in Ramsey, New Jersey back in 2002 — earned a pair of Grammy nominations (Best New Artist, Best Americana Album), contributed two songs to The Hunger Games franchise (including the hit Jennifer Lawrence/James Newton Howard collaboration, “The Hanging Tree”) and sold an impressive 1.7 million albums in the U.S., and 3 million worldwide.
Cleopatra proves Schultz and Fraites – along with cellist/vocalist Neyla Pekarek– are neither taking their good fortune for granted, nor sitting back on their laurels. With the help of producer Simone Felice (The Felice Brothers, The Avett Brothers), the man Wesley calls “our shaman,” the band ensconced themselves in Clubhouse, a recording studio high atop a hill in rural Rhinebeck, N.Y., not far from Woodstock.
The Lumineers then set about trying to make musical sense of their three-year-plus roller coaster ride. Their skill at setting a visual story to music comes through amidst the delicate, deceptively simple acoustic soundscapes. This time, though, bassist Byron Isaacs provides a firm, low-end on the apocalyptic opener “Sleep on the Floor,” a ghostly tune about getting out of town before the “subways flood [and] the bridges break.” It’s a densely packed, cinematic song that echoes Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden – which were models for the record alongside Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“We took the same approach this time as we did with the first album, recording demos in a small house we rented in the original Denver neighborhood where we first moved,” explains Wesley, contributing the lyrical ideas while collaborating on the music with Jer, who tackled a variety of instruments, including guitar, the very prominent piano and trademark tribal drums.
“Wes handles all the lyrics”, says Jeremiah, “and Wes and I come up with all the rest together – music, melody, and structure. There are no rules or titles in our writing process, just merely chipping away slowly until we both agree we have something fantastic.”
“The record is our greatest hits reflecting what’s happened to us over the last three years,” added Wesley. “We tried to come up with the best possible version of every song, so we recorded a lot of different iterations, changing the tempos, dressing ‘em up, stripping ‘em down. It took a lot of work to make them sound so easy. We’re very passionate about the process. It was a very intense and beautiful experience. There was a lot of battling, a lot of tears, but some amazing stuff came out, and at the end, we were much better off. It transformed our relationship.”
Cleopatra is named after the title track, inspired by a woman from the Republic of Georgia, an acquaintance of Wesley’s wife’s best friend whom he met while visiting there. The hard-bitten woman drove a taxi with a can of beer between her legs and a cigarette dangling from her mouth, having survived a hard-scrabble life, pining for the man who got away after her father died. “There was this level of defiance about her,” nodded Wesley. “She was accepting her fate, but still felt misunderstood.”
Cleopatra also deals with what Wesley terms “the elephant in the room,” the band’s success and the way it can sometimes put a target on your back. The syncopated piano rolls in “Ophelia” (“I got a little paycheck/You got big plans/You gotta move/I don’t feel nothin’ at all”), the organic sound of fingers squeaking on guitar strings in “Angela” (“The strangers in this town/They raise you up just to cut you down”) and the Faustian bargain described in “My Eyes” (“Oh, the devil’s inside/You open the door/You gave him a ride/Too young to know/Too old to admit/But you couldn’t see how it ends”) consider the perils of getting what you wish for, with everyone knowing your name, and your songs.
Schultz demonstrates his keen literary eye and ear for narrative description in “The Gun Song,” in which he recalls rummaging through his mild-mannered, progressive, intellectual, psychologist father’s sock drawer after his death and finding a “Smith & Wesson pistol,” making him wonder what other mysteries his dad kept from him. “Long Way from Home,” its 5/4 signature reminiscent of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” or “Shelter from the Storm,” tells of hope and desperation, a double-edged sword which can both sustain or ultimately, “fuck you up,” Wesley noted ruefully. The title phrase repeats three different times at the end of the individual verses, each carrying a different meaning. Sings Schultz: “Held on to hope/Like a noose/Like a rope/God and medicine take no mercy on him…” The characters in Cleopatra are hanging on for dear life, trying to find reasons to believe, or creating some on their own just to survive with some sort of grace.
With four years between albums, The Lumineers are excited to get back out on the road and, as Wesley puts it, “connect with the new record and have people connect with it.”
The band had total artistic freedom in writing and recording the album, so Wesley and Jer pushed the envelope on experimental tracks like the stream-of-consciousness, purposely lo-fi “Sick in the Head,” the yearning, piano chord build-up of “In the Light,” or the closing orchestral instrumental, the aptly titled coda, “Patience.”
There is something timeless about The Lumineers that links their songs to 18th century pastorals, 19th century work songs, 20th century folk narratives and 21st century post-modern cinematic soundscapes. It sounds familiar, but take the time to dig below the surface. Listen carefully and layers of meaning reveal themselves, just like that gun Wesley discovered in his dad’s drawer, intimating all sorts of intrigue and sharp observations. Success hasn’t spoiled The Lumineers; rather, it’s inspired them to follow their muses even further.
“We continue to make the kind of records we want to,” says Wesley. “We believe in this music. It’s a true labor of love. We just want to keep reaching more people with our songs.”
Given the evidence on The Lumineers’ eagerly anticipated sophomore album Cleopatra, that shouldn’t be a problem.