The Lumineers – Brightside
In all the time that I’ve been running this blog, The Lumineers are probably the band that have surprised me the most over the years. Every time that I write them off they’ve managed to far exceed my expectations. When I thought that their debut was just a flash in the pan, they came back bigger and better by every metric with Cleopatra. When I heard talk that the follow-up was an ambitious concept album tacking the delicate topic of addiction, I figured that the band had bit off more than they could chew, but lo and behold III was a triumph; an unexpected delight that proved to be one of the best records of 2019.
The thing is, if someone exceeds your expectations enough, eventually the scales must inevitably tip. Your expectations shift, and consciously or not you set the bar just a little higher. Sadly it’s hard not for the bare-bones approach of Brightside to feel like it comes up short, especially with their ambitious third album as a close point of comparison. At a time when they’ve graduated to selling out arenas, the band have elected to release the least ‘arena-ready’ record of their career.
I think the origin of a lot of the album’s problems can be traced back to the band firmly becoming a duo. While The Lumineers have increasingly centred around primary songwriters Westley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites over the past few years, with Brightside they’re now operating with a skeleton crew of collaborators and electing to perform almost all of the instrumentation themselves. This is as sparse and simplistic that the band has ever sounded. The limited musical palette really narrows the scope compared to previous releases, with the austere arrangements of basic guitar and drums starting to bleed into each other before too long. With the exception of the quiet piano balladry of ‘Rollercoaster’ and the metronomic electronics on ‘Remington’, the album has no tricks up its sleeves – when you’ve heard one track you’ve heard them all.
Even being the least interesting album of their career by far, I can’t write it off completely. There’s a certain sincerity and earnestness in the stark approach which has a real charm to it, feeling at times like you’re sitting in on a jam session as some quiet observer in the corner. Songs like ‘A.M. Radio’, ‘Big Shot’, the title track and its closing reprise, are built around rock solid hooks that need only the slightest nudge in the right direction to become something truly uplifting and anthemic. In their current state however, even the album’s highlights feel like there’s something missing, like they’re demos still waiting for the finishing touches. It’s perfectly plausible that in a live setting, with the electricity in the air and backing musicians at their disposal, The Lumineers can breathe new life into these tracks – but as far as the studio versions are concerned, that’s all she wrote. Hopefully Brightside is just a bump in the road. Fingers crossed our main duo open themselves up to greater collaboration and rediscover some of the energy and ambition from previous records that feels so lacking here.