By Chris Osifchin
America was getting nervous. For nearly four years, we heard the wonderfully jangly, upbeat “Ho Hey” nearly everywhere – movies, television, ads, radio, you name it. The country’s best shot at folk redemption, it seemed at the time, came from bands like Mumford & Sons and their younger brothers in sonic similitude, The Lumineers.
But like Bob Dylan at Newport Folk, Mumford went electric. Wilder Mind saw the band pulling a full on spectrum switch in releasing a radically different album painted with a pallette of ugly colors. Gone were the lush folky ballads, the orchestral buildups and their soul-ripping releases, and the sound that made them the face of the late 2000s/early 2010s folk revival. In its place was an experimental mess of sound, a band pretending to be something it never should’ve tried to be in the first place.
The Lumineers, on the other hand, must have learned from the relative failure of their predecessor, and decided it was best to stay grounded. Four years on, we finally have the follow-up to mega-hit “Ho Hey” and 2012’s The Lumineers in the down-trodden, down-tempo, but thoroughly exhilarating Cleopatra.
The foot-stompers stopped stomping their feet, the gaggle of acoustic guitars were traded for mostly electric arrangements, and the sprawling vocal camaraderie vanished, but the simplicity remains. Quite frankly, The Lumineers got right what Mumford got wrong with Wilder Mind. Without a close reading, you might not even notice the electric guitar at all; it’s all in the way Wesley Schultz navigates his axe. Cleopatra revels in its relative simplicity, despite its chameleonic nature.
Decidedly darker than their first iteration, 2016 presents The Lumineers in a new light. Cleopatra’s opener “Sleep On The Floor” is a runaway tune in the vein of Springsteen folk. Compelled to leave what might be assumed as a deadbeat hometown, Schultz sings, “Take a withdrawal slip, take all of your savings out/Cause if we don’t leave this town/We might never make it out.” Leave your hometown, take the girl, but if we don’t go we might never get out of here alive.
With the darkness comes an existential angst not seen from the band until now. Near the end of the album, “Sick In The Head” contemplates the mechanism of fame with lines like “They’re writing my history/Think somebody should’ve asked me.” The Lumineers were practically shot out of a rocket into fame after “Ho Hey.” Some artists handle it better than others. Some put it into song. Schultz is able to channel the inevitable frustrations of experiencing fame at breakneck speed, all the while giving the finger to the haters along the way. It’s a statement for the band. Schultz and his group are marking their ground.
After the wave of the folk revival crested it was unclear which bands would remain after the wave crashed. Cleopatra is addition by subtraction for The Lumineers. By removing some of the conventions of their self-titled debut, they effectively expanded the breadth of their music when viewed as a collective whole, without violently veering off the path. It’s a much more natural evolution compared to Mumford’s and gives the band some breathing room for future releases. It’s not the sing-songy folk of “Ho Hey.” But it’s also not a complete departure from the simple melody song structure they used to craft The Lumineers. For album number two, it feels about right. Let’s pray we’re not waiting four years for another one.
Rating 7 out of 10