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 No. 2 - but Cleopatra is well worth the wait. Cleopatra proves that Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah 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 Isaac 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.
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. 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," the organic sound of fingers squeaking on guitar strings in "Angela" and the Faustian bargain described in "My Eyes" 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." "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 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. 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. Success hasn't spoiled The Lumineers; rather, it's inspired them to follow their muses even further.
1. Sleep On The Floor
4. Gun Song
6. In The Light
7. Gale Song
8. Long Way From Home
9. Sick In The Head
10. My Eyes