Rather than riding the momentum of their massively successful debut album and quickly releasing a follow-up, The Lumineers took an Olympic/FIFA World Cup approach and waited four years before delivering their next musical installment. While fans who were eagerly anticipating new material might have appreciated a shorter gap between records, the layoff should actually end up working in the band’s favour.
Now that the hooplah from The Lumineers (2012) has died down a bit, people will hopefully be more inclined to appreciate Cleopatra for what it is, and not as something that (purposely) fails in recreating the same kind of magic as that self-titled debut. If there was an underlying current to The Lumineers, its was one of clean, snappy melodies and foot-stomping rhythms, a formula that led to memorable—and largely pastoral—tracks like “Ho Hey,” “Flowers In Your Hair,” and “Stubborn Love.” Cleopatra shows flashes of that signature sound early on, but moves away from it as the album progresses (RIP violin), as if trying to strategically ease listeners into the group’s evolution. Fans may not be immediately thrilled about the direction The Lumineers have been steadily veering in, but there’s a lot to be said for some of their work on Cleopatra and the promise it could hold for the band’s future.
What really sticks out is how prominent the electric guitar has become in their music, replacing the acoustic as the primary instrument on most tracks as it did for fellow folk sensations Mumford & Sons (and Bob Dylan long before them). This may piss off some purists out there, but for the most part, it’s a change that works (sadly I don’t think you can say the same for Marcus Mumford and company). It gives us solid guitar-driven tracks like “Long Way From Home” and “Gale Song,” which provide a welcome sonic texture that adds to The Lumineers’ style without totally hijacking it.
It’s not just the instrumental differences that make Cleopatra a departure from The Lumineers, but also the structural ones. The band has toned down the foot-stomping a bit and sacrificed some of its ear-infesting catchiness for more musically adventurous songs.
As mentioned earlier, that isn’t so much the case on the beginning of the album. Opener “Sleep On The Floor” starts off like a slightly slower “Ho Hey,” and “Cleopatra” and “Ophelia” (note to The Lumineers: DON’T name your single after an all-time classic by another Americana group) are both radio-friendly tunes that would’ve fit right in four years ago.
But something like “In The Light,” which methodically builds towards a big finish as opposed to laying all the cards on the table right away, showed off a lot of songwriting growth. So did “Angela,” whose jazzed up progression makes the standard Lumineer fingerpicking a lot more exciting. “My Eyes” has a complexity and haunting beauty to it that attests to the kind of versatility this band is capable of showing.
There are a few growing pains on Cleopatra (you could cut a dull track like “Sick In The Head” and nobody would bat an eyelid), but they’re few and far between. The Lumineers are certainly no fluke or one trick pony. Hopefully we don’t have to wait until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to see what they have in store for us next.