In sports, we have what we call “the glue guy or player;” it is usually that player who molds everything together in the most subtle ways. We’re talking mannerisms that encourage good plays and elevate after bad plays for the team members; they can be a top 5 player or someone on the bench. That usually translates to bands, and for The Lumineers, they have lost theirs, and it has become more noticeable in their sound; it was slightly apparent with their last release, III, and more so on their follow-up, Brightside. For the instrumental ideas that they bring into the fold, you hear the empty void left by cellist Neyla Pekarek, whose subtle string constructions buoyed a cadence between the elevated string and key arrangements on their more uproarious folk tracks. It misses her presence, but the album suffers from other problems, like keeping your attention. Brightside is more traditional than past albums; however, as much as this direction is something I’ve expected to come from The Lumineers, it finds itself slipping on the edge after a strong start.
Brightside doesn’t limit itself within the parameter of its traditional folk conventions, specifically the vocals by Wesley Shultz. There are elements of alt-rock, as they incorporate more electric guitar to contrast a tame delivery of deep emotions from the mandolin. Shultz takes on us on a journey of self-discovery – one wherein we grasp these mental hurdles that sometimes hold us back, like humbling ourselves during our highs. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t tend to give these emotions justice, leaving us tethered to the neurons that make you zone out. It doesn’t help that it is one of the weaker openings for a Lumineers’ album. It tethers itself to stylings of old without feeling fresh, and sure, you can make an argument that their inclusion of a more electronic soundscape is taking the electric guitar and proclaiming it as such. Fortunately, track 2, “A.M. Radio,” is that cup of water to the face after a failed attempt at being woken up.
Now, “A.M. Radio” is what I expected from The Lumineers when I thought they would slowly transition into being more open to other soundscapes at a limited level. It buoys a powerful acoustic guitar and piano base, giving the electronic soundscape a spotlight as a bridge between verses. Wesley Shultz’s vocals are on full display as he gives us an emotionally potent song about turning back time, using radio as an allusion for an eclipse of time. The Lumineers continue to impress with “Where We Are,” where they continue to balance elements of acoustic folk and synthesizers. It continues for a little bit, but it flusters with maintaining an identity. It isn’t until “Reprise” that we get a sense of old to close out Brightside. But it makes another thing evident about the album: The Lumineers didn’t take notes of how to create consistency from their contemporaries.
Brightside is to The Lumineers like Delta is for Mumford & Sons: after tweedling with more alt-rock elements, they go about delivering their first immersive transition to a new era/sound. It’s been looming for The Lumineers since Neyla Pekarek left, taking away unique subtle backing vocals and tender care for the strings on the cello. It counterbalanced the uproarious percussion and strings on songs like “Angela” off their second album Cleopatra and “Stubborn Love” off The Lumineers. Though there are great things on the album, it forgets that it needs to have an identity a few times. “Rollercoaster” subverts the notion of the title and allows us to feel it through the emotions in his voice, but at times it stays on a mundane wavelength before poorly executing an overabundance of simple synths and vocal modulations, which wastes two minutes of your time before it concludes with “Reprise.”
For what it’s worth, Brightside doesn’t give us a great first half as a tease; instead, it’s like the ideas start to wane thin for The Lumineers as they try to learn where they fit amongst the soundscape. Unfortunately, they haven’t found their voice in this soundscape, despite flashes. It’s because the sound is over-reliant on blending acoustics that the production has to weave layers and transitions carefully. It’s hard to have it both ways, though it may not always be perfect, like Ellie Goulding’s early years. Unlike III, there is less of a disappointment as there are no expectations for an impactful linear direction.
Brightside may be a tad better than III, but it doesn’t fully come to its own. It rounds out at 30 minutes, and it breezes by quickly without letting you think for a moment about what you are hearing. But when you do, it isn’t as profound, but it is good enough to keep you feeling warm around a fire. I’m hoping The Lumineers figure it out because what I liked a lot works, and it would give their presence more of a definition than their typical hipster-folk/music label.