By: Zinnia Ramirez
Indie folk band, The Lumineers, add to their list of successful albums with the Sept. 13 release of “III.” This visual album is accompanied by a short film that had its world premiere on Sept. 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The album and short film both illustrate the way addiction affects the family dynamic and how it’s carried on in a cycle of transgenerational trauma.
“III,” which is divided into three separate acts, deconstructs the topic of addiction through three generations of a single family. Though the album doesn’t divide the chapters with corresponding titles, the tracks come in sets of three. Still, it becomes clear that the songs are separated generationally wherein we follow the stories of “Gloria Sparks,” “Junior Sparks” and “Jimmy Sparks.” The third chapter, “Junior Sparks,” illustrates the way addiction can affect familial relationships. In the final chapter, “Jimmy Sparks” has four songs in the act that really disassemble his character.
In an interview with NPR, drummer Jeremiah Fraites explained that addiction “has a sort of fallout effect — similar to the effects of a radiation bomb — over time and over years and years, it continually tends to affect people’s loved ones.”
Unfortunately, for many, addiction is compounded with topics considered taboo in conversation. However, both Fraites and lead vocalist, Wesley Schultz, feel there is a need to spotlight this topic.
The two acknowledge that Schultz’s friend and Fraites’ brother, Josh Fraites, died from drug addiction at a young age. Fraites describes how crumbling drug addiction can be and the album’s short film highlights it as a progressive disease.
Viewers follow the lives of three generations in a compilation of beautiful, cinematic sequences and compelling panoramic shots. The first chapter “Gloria Sparks” begins with the story of an alcoholic woman named Gloria Sparks, played by Anna Cordell in her chilling debut performance. The first song of the album titled “Donna” introduces Gloria’s character in a series of scenes displaying her struggle with alcoholism and depression. This act juxtaposes her crumbling psyche against clips of her infant son. This first chapter is acoustically melancholic as it gnaws at Gloria’s fight to accept not only motherhood, but also herself. Her baby is later revealed to be Jimmy Sparks, played by Nick Stahl. Jimmy grows up engulfed in addiction just as his mother was.
In chapter two of “III”, The Lumineers include their previously released single, “It Wasn’t Easy to Be Happy for You,” and introduce Jimmy’s son, Junior, played by Charlie Tahan of “Ozark” and “Super Dark Times.” Here, we find out just how frayed the father-son relationship becomes when addiction seeps in. “Leader of the Landslide” highlights how addiction is a progressive disease through a series of slow-motion close-ups of Jimmy and his friends dancing, drinking and doing coke. Contrastingly, “Left for Denver,” makes listeners think that this cycle of trauma is broken when Jimmy’s son burns the same piano that Gloria ran her fingers through in the first song of the album. Junior stares at the piano as it envelopes in flames as though he’s eradicating any remnants of the trauma his grandmother left behind.
However, things take a turn when the next and final four-part act shows Jimmy’s demise and his son’s struggle to cope with his father’s addictive ways. “My Cell” becomes a disturbingly pervasive take on Jimmy’s poor-decision making and the lyrics themselves really invite you to understand his crumbling sanity. The Lumineers chime, “My cell, my pretty little cell,” in the midst of piano keys and guitar strums while Jimmy lays paralyzed in a pool of his own blood. This is a moment of extreme vulnerability in a grisly display of defenselessness by Jimmy. Jimmy’s “cell” is himself and the decisions he makes.
The following song, “Jimmy Sparks,” melds in the bowing of violins and beats that take you in and out of Jimmy’s immediate reality. He sparks a cigarette and becomes bombarded with visuals of a happy past. Next comes “April,” a short 51 second interlude, that shows Jimmy fumbling down the highway as Junior speeds down the road. Beaten, bruised and boozed Jimmy looks back only to see that his own son doesn’t recognize him. Schultz tells NPR, “I think it has a couple of layers to it where you’re not really sure why he kept driving and if he even recognized [Jimmy]… If he did, what does that mean? I think for someone who’s not around an addict very closely, it probably sounds very cold, but to anyone who has been, there are a lot of people who understand what that means, unfortunately.”
That scene shows a gripping display of defeat by Junior who doesn’t want to deal with the addiction that has taken a hold of his father. It illustrates how addiction can really transform a person you know into someone you can’t even recognize. Still, the concluding song, “The Salt and the Sea,” emphasizes how hard it is to let someone go regardless of their toxicity. The album comes full circle as Junior carries his father to the truck, urging him to go to the infirmary the same way Gloria carried his late grandfather many years back. They both have a similar blow to the head— a result of the same deteriorating addiction.
The Lumineers successfully display the way addiction takes full-circle in the lives of loved ones. Fraites and Schultz tackle the conversation of addiction in a way that disassembles notions that it is simply black and white. There is more to alcoholism and drug abuse than we hear about in people’s narratives. Though the Sparks’ family story is a fictional one, it doesn’t take away from the fact that addiction can be passed on. The short film elucidates just how transcendent transgenerational trauma can be— trauma may not start with you but it can end with you. I’m looking forward to the cinematic ventures that The Lumineers will embark on in later albums and the topics that they’re willing to explore musically.