The Lumineers’ debut album was released on April 3, 2012. The #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 that week was “We Are Young” by Fun. Before that it was “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson. Before that was “Part Of Me” by Katy Perry.
What all these songs have in common, along with most songs in Top 40 then and now, is HUGE production. Sure, there may be a piano or guitar at the beginning, and there may be an a capella or rap breakdown somewhere in there, but at least by the time the chorus kicks in, all of these songs are supported by layers and layers of synths, echo, and various digital production tricks to create a thick, dense waveform, a tsunami of sound that physically washes over the listener. This isn’t a bad thing — it can be very powerful, which is probably what makes it so very popular. And boy oh boy is it popular right now.
Compare this to the sound on The Lumineers, whose defining aural quality is open space. Almost every instrument is acoustic, and very few instruments even appear on a given track. Vocals are in the forefront, but they aren’t heavily processed, and they’re frequently accompanied by only one instrument, or none at all. Where the sound level does build, it tends to be from natural timbres — a chorus of voices, stomping feet, clapping hands.
This style gets called a few different things — alt-folk, indie folk, Americana. But it strikes me that in an age dominated by electronic instruments and high-gloss production, the impulse behind The Lumineers has an awful lot in common with punk rock. Like The Ramones and The Clash, The Lumineers reject the dominant form of their time and hearken back to the simpler sound of an earlier era.
But unlike punk, they’re going back a little further, and to a different section of the culture — one more rural, less industrialized. (Also, they’re not quite the pioneers that The Ramones were, rather following in the tracks left by Mumford & Sons, and in a slightly different sense Arcade Fire and The Decemberists. But hey, they’re local heroes, so I’m putting the assignment spotlight on them.) From the way they dress to the simple instrumentation and arrangements, The Lumineers’ image and sound is rooted in the folk music of at least a hundred years ago.
That’s not to say that that The Lumineers entirely reject the modern world — their lyrics mention fast food parking lots, taking a bus to Chinatown, having your car window smashed but the stereo left intact. And there’s even an electric guitar poking through here and there, albeit played slow and solo. Still, even where they aren’t telling explicitly period stories (“Flapper Girl”, “Charlie Boy”), The Lumineers are miles away from the dominant pop sensibility.
That’s the easy part, though. Anybody can look at the charts and declare, a la George Costanza, “I will do the opposite!” It takes something a little more special to have a Top 5 single and two Top 5 albums with “the opposite.” So what’s their appeal beyond punky independence? There are a lot of factors that go into it, but I’d like to focus on three. First, impassioned vocals. Wesley Schultz brings an enormous depth and nuance to his singing. He’s never screamy, never histrionic, but the spaciousness of the songs allows him to bring out the deepest feelings in his characters — the betrayal in “Morning Song”, the dedication in “Ho Hey”, the gratitude in “Dead Sea”.
Second, the musical cleverness. I found myself doing double-takes as I listened to this album, starting tracks over so I could understand how they’d taken me in. “Submarines”, for instance, starts out with a piano just a hair ahead of the beat — a rollicking, syncopated sound. But a few lines in, the piano pulls back behind the beat and changes time signatures from 4/4 to 3/4, altering the feel of the song completely. Then a guitar comes in, and the beat switches back to 4/4, but we hear drums playing triplets behind the next verse. The song keeps switching back and forth, playing the rhythms against each other, percussive chords playing in standard time while voices shout “sub-ma-rines!” triplets in the background. It becomes dizzying, hypnotic, enthralling.
Finally, the poignancy created by the combination of lyrics and music. “Charlie Boy” is a great example of this. The words tell a story of a boy born in 1944, inspired by Kennedy to serve in the military, and killed in the Vietnam War. We hear about his mother’s worry, and the town’s grief (“Meutchen mourn our loss.”) A little research reveals that Wesley Schultz’s uncle was named Charles, born in 1944, and killed in action in Vietnam. His hometown of Meutchen, New Jersey, built a memorial for its three residents killed in the war. This story is told over a a duet of simply strummed guitar and mandolin, accompanied by a mournful cello. It’s a different, deeper mood than “We are young, so let’s set the world on fire”, and rather than overwhelming us with sound, it overwhelms us with emotion.