Storytelling is an art form. It takes on different shapes and mediums to deliver different protagonists and plot lines. Music is a very good medium. It has an uncanny way to tell a story and each artist have a different way of doing so. Plus, its reach towards the masses is grand. The Lumineers have done something extraordinary. They have combined brilliantly nuanced cinematography and vivid lyrics to tell the story of a woman taxi driver in a five-part music video anthology. They entitled it “The Ballad of Cleopatra.”
The Lumineers are a folk rock band who started in 2005. They are known for their amazing lyrics and mellow songs that deliver so much grace and power. The band emerged as one of the most popular Americana artists during the renewal and revival of those genres.
Their major influences are Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty. Aside from this album, some of their songs include “Ho Hey” and “Stubborn Love.”
On writing, Wesley Schultz has stated that the conception of a song is never the same.
“It’s never the same thing with each song. Generally speaking it involves a piano, a guitar, and maybe singing, and we usually start out with the chord structure, a set of chords, a melody especially, and then the lyrics usually follow. Or it’s one phrase that you really find great and then you build the song around that.”An interview via “The Amerincal Songwriter”
Schultz, the band’s front man had captured the core of this album:
“We want to focus on the core, not the illusion.”
Their 2015 album “Cleopatra” is rich with lyrical tapetries vivid with the life of the woman who had her life shaped by her occupation – a taxi driver, of all things. It’s not a unique thing, but it could very well be one of the few occupations where you are allowed to be an audience to other people’s distinct timelines.
The album received positive reviews, and commercial success. It debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart and the Billboard 200.
When you take a listen to the album in its entirety, it is filled with brutally honest lyrics and the wisdom of only someone who has lived their life could have. The road and her life experiences had taught her much, and the lyrics captured it all.Each song’s vibe is melancholic and deeply reflective. It cuts deep within your soul if you’d let it.
The album is accompanied by a 24 minute long video anthology entitled “The Ballad of Cleopatra.” Isaac Ravishankara is the genius behind the beautiful cinematography. He, together with the members of The Lumineers are responsible for writing the gorgeous narrative.
It masterfully molds together both stunning cinematography and the albums already poignant lyrics. The video is the perfect accompaniment. It gives us, the audience, clear visuals of who this woman is or what stage of her life she is on.
The story is told in a non-linear timeline, all featuring a heroine with a scar on her left cheek. We see chronicles of her life in the snippets that we get, creatively told in scenarios of “what if?” We get to see the emotionally charged moments of her existence, and it’s safe to say that everybody was floored when it first came out.
Let’s dive into it.
“The Ballad of Cleopatra” opens with a light, sweet song entitled “Ophelia.” The song sets the mood for what’s to come with the cinematic. Its lyrics immediately opens us to how much story are we gonna get from the entirety.
Oh, oh, when I was younger, oh, oh, should have known better[…]
And I can’t feel no remorse, and you don’t feel nothing back
Oh, oh, got a little paycheck, you got big plans and you gotta move
And I don’t feel nothing at all
And you can’t feel nothing small
It also is seemingly filled with love for the girl named “Ophelia.”
Oh, oh, got a new girlfriend, he feels like he’s on top
And I don’t feel no remorse, and you can’t see past my blinders
Oh, Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind girl since the flood
Oh, Ophelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love
The initial beat draws you into the song and the comfortable drawl of Schultz, their frontman makes you stay for the party. This is also where we see what would be one of the main themes of the whole cinematic. During a certain singing sequence, we see Schultz split from his body. His body continues to sing and dazzle the crowd, while his other goes straight out the door. We see him dance around puddles and having a grand old time. Briefly, we wonder if this would be what he thinks would happen if he were to choose to leave the stage and go to pursue other things.
In Schultz’s prelude, we gently slide into the next song entitled “Cleopatra.” Front and center is a gorgeous looking woman who looks to be in her fifties. The image of her sitting alone in her cab fades into the title card and we are once again transported into another amazing timeline.
The tone of “Cleopatra” meshed well with its predecessor, but this song took a more mature voice to it. The song was still very much raw and unapologetic. It tells a story of a woman dubbed as “Cleopatra.”
We would presume that this is in the present moment of her life. Out of all of the songs in the ensemble, this is the song that embodies the woman’s story the most. Schultz would sing about her pas experiences as if she was the one narrating the story of her life. She lived, but it is apparent that she is still consumed by loneliness.
I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress
When you knelt by my mattress, and asked for my hand
But I was sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress
With my father in a casket, I had no plans, yeah
This takes us to a more retrospective moment. The more you listen to the lyrics, the more you question the decisions that Cleopatra may have done in her life. And in a sense, it makes you question your own as well when the front man sings this particular line:
But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time
At the end of the video, we see her image split to follow in what we can assume as her family. We are again reminded of what could be, coupled with a bittersweet timing of the lyrics:
I won’t be late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time
When she gets back into the taxi cab, the image fades, and we get transported into another moment in her timeline.
Sleep on the Floor
We see a young woman in her twenties, dab smack in the middle of the funeral that was briefly mentioned in “Cleopatra.” Early on the video, we see the split happening, and throughout we see how her life would have played out if she went with the man that she loved.
“Sleep on the Floor” is the most carefree song in the ensemble. It showcases the freedom of being young without consequences, too seize the moment and just live.
Pack yourself a toothbrush dear
Pack yourself a favorite blouse
Take a withdrawal slip
Take all of your savings out
‘Cause if we don’t leave this town
We might never make it out
I was not born to drown
Baby come on
The video that is accompanying the song shows the pure love of the young couple. It also shows the struggles that people that age undergo.
And when we looked outside
Couldn’t even see the sky
How do you pay the rent
Is it your parents
Or is hard work dear
Holding the atmosphere
I don’t wanna live like that, yeah
At the end of the video, we witness heartbreak, as all of that beautiful visual sequence is but only a figment of her dreams. And, it remains to just be wishful thinking.
“Angela” starts off with serene guitar picking fit for the melancholic nature of the song. The split happens when the woman decides to leave the safe warm arms of her husband and instead jumps into her beat up Volvo.
This feels like a song that would be an ode to running away from your problems. “Angela” feels so lonely, as if the whole world’s weight is on the woman’s shoulders, and all she could do was run.
When you left this town, with your windows down
And the wilderness inside
Let the exits pass, all the tar and glass[…]
‘Til the road and sky align
Strangers in this town,
They raise you up just to cut you down
Oh Angela it’s a long time coming
Oh Angela spent your whole life running
The video showcases her being happy even when she is alone. She relishes her freedom, but at the same time the whole pensiveness of the song permeates to the next and final part of the cinematography.
The final leg of the cinematography takes us back to the perspective of what the old woman sees first in “Cleopatra.” The Lumineers closes with a heartfelt song entitled “My Eyes.” We see the woman in the oldest stage of her life. We see her get dropped off a nursing home, while her present self drives away in a taxi cab.
This is by far the saddest song on the whole ensemble, yet its the perfect fit to end it all. It’s poignant, it gives you reflection points, and it showcases the life of the woman in a linear way.
Oh, the devil’s inside
You opened the door
You gave him a ride
Too young to know, too old to admit
That you couldn’t see how it endsWhat did you do to my eyes
What did you sing to that lonely child
Promised it all but you lied
You better slow down baby soon
It’s all or nothing to you
The lyrics reflect a sort of “end-of-times” vibe for the old woman. For a final time, we get to see how she lived her life, and we get to see that fade with her.
The glow of Hollywood signs
They sold you a bridge
They fed you the lines
You always confused your servants for friends
But you couldn’t see how it ends
It’s all or nothing to you
We see the final moment she splits, and this is the only time we wonder where she goes. Her destination is uncertain in this one, and it is left open-ended. But, this is the final leg of her journey, and we’re all here for her.
“The Ballad of Cleopatra” gives us a very creative take on life and the different paths that it could take us. It’s reflective in its own right, and its unequivocally unique and creative in exploring and narrating the life of a woman who was hardened by life and her experiences.
The lyrics of each song are absolutely biographical, as explain by their front man, Wesley Schultz. They were inspired by a story that they picked up, and transformed it into a well fleshed out character. She wasn’t just a woman who drove a taxi cab for a living. At the end of the day, she was larger than life. She was Cleopatra.
The narrative leaves us with an incredible feeling of sonder. It would mean that we get to realize that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. We are all interesting people full of regrets and what ifs. And sometimes, all we got to do is be brave and decide what we make of our lives.