The Lumineers Maintain Their Independence on ‘Cleopatra’

Indie Folk, Indie Rock
Avatar Yunus Church

I recently ended a nearly two-year long distance relationship.

Anybody who has ever been in a long distance relationship understands that physical distance between bodies tends to, over time, amplify problems and chip away at lines of communication. It happens slowly, like winds eating away at an exposed piece of rock, at a pace that neither person can neatly identify in real time.

Amongst the reasons that I decided to end a relationship with an amazing woman, ultimately, it was this combination of time and distance that led me to my decision more than any other. I have a great new job, one that I can see myself growing into for many years to come, and a great new life in a great new city. It’s intimidating and oftentimes overwhelming, but if I don’t see where this journey takes me I will regret it for a lifetime. In the end, I was unwilling to sacrifice my independence for her by moving and settling into comfortability, and with each passing day it seemed as if the miles between us were growing because of it.

She felt the same way.

Thus we were left, two fiercely independent mid-twenty-somethings, trying to hold onto visions of our independent selves while simultaneously attempting to make something work that would have required one of those visions to change dramatically. Independence is a true blessing; one that always comes at a cost.
The Lumineers know this all too well.

After struggling to be heard for nearly a decade, all the while going through the vast plethora of issues that plague the journey of a starving band, all of a sudden Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites, and (since 2010) Neyla Pekarek had a monster hit on their hands.

“Ho Hey,” the infectious chart-topping lead single that pushed their self-titled 2012 debut album to nearly 2x platinum status in the U.S. alone, was unavoidable for that entire calendar year. Schultz, Fraites, and Pekarek were able to tour arenas across the world because of it. So after grinding with no end in sight for almost ten years, only to become the darlings of the indie folk and folk rock scenes overnight, what is a band to do on their follow-up LP?
Ask an industry executive and they’ll surely tell you to cash the fuck out; sign with a major label; work with a producer who can expand your sound into the pop realm; and most importantly, get your ass back in the studio and make “Ho Hey” part two.
The Lumineers did none of these things.

If anything, ‘Cleopatra,’ the excellent follow-up to their debut, is an ode to independence. The Lumineers decided to remain on Dualtone Records, the Nashville-based independent label that gave them their shot. They sought out the production prowess of Simone Felice, formerly of the folk rock band The Felice Brothers, who The Lumineers have praised for years.
And they doubled down on the sound that they wanted to pursue. Not the light-hearted chants, upbeat tambourine shakes, and vaguely wistful longings of “Ho Hey,” but rather, the very abtruse and arduous emotions that come with the reality of being out in the world, away from home, trying not to forget what got you here while doing your best to carve a new path.

Clocking in at 33 minutes, ‘Cleopatra’ is brisk to say the least. The band makes a point to avoid the clutter that plagues the majority of major label releases. Much less percussion is involved, which highlights Schultz’s songwriting prowess. It’s an album that doesn’t try to recapture previous success, but on the contrary, earns a new trust from the listener with each subsequent spin. The 11 tracks are anti-triumphant, and in that sense, triumphantly independent.

Perhaps the female protagonists, “Ophelia,” “Cleopatra,” and “Angela” are the best testaments to this triumph.
“Oh Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind, girl, like a drug… Heaven help the fool who falls in love,” reflects Schultz about the struggle to stay grounded amidst getting tugged in a thousand directions by newfound fame and glory.

Yet “Cleopatra,” the album’s title track, assures us that Schultz, like the now aging woman from whose perspective he sings, has the strength to say no to the temptations. Although she deeply misses the man who asked her to marry him at a young age, I do not view “Cleopatra” as a sorrowful ode to lost love. Rather, to me anyways, it’s a statement of bravery: to accept that living life on your own terms often comes with necessary sacrifice.

This manifesto is driven home, quite literally, by “Angela,” who finally musters the strength to leave her home in search of a new one. Although she doesn’t settle in a new town by song’s end, she has found home at last, suggesting that home is never really a destination at all.

For The Lumineers it seems as if, at least for the time being, they have found their home on ‘Cleopatra.’ They managed to create an excellent and challenging sophomore album that stakes the group’s independence and avoids mainstream pop cliches. They urge their fans to ride alongside them on their own terms – even if the chants of “HO” and “HEY” are nothing more but echoes in the distance.