With the release of “Gloria,” The Lumineers prove that a Billboard hit song can still bear a poignant message. The folk-rock group has created a beautiful tune that provides seldom-seen commentary on alcoholism from the perspective of a mother, giving insight to how the disease seeps into succeeding generations.
In May, the band released music videos for the first three songs of their new album, “III.” “Chapter 1: Gloria Sparks” introduces addict and new mother Gloria Sparks (Anna Cordell), “Donna” tells of Gloria’s mother and childhood and “Life in the City” offers a glimpse into Gloria’s life before her son’s birth. In “Gloria,” audiences find her at her lowest point — drowning in motherhood, booze and self-loathing.
The next two installments focus on Gloria’s son, Jimmy, and her grandson, Junior.
“So many people are touched by addiction, way more than is talked about,” lead singer Wesley Schultz told Variety. “It’s a lot like cancer in that it is this way too common thing in our culture.”
The inability or unwillingness of our society to talk about addiction leads many addicts to suffer alone and fosters misconceptions about the process of recovery. Despite her new baby and loving husband, Gloria does not get sober even after a seizure leaves her hospitalized.
It would be easy for viewers of the music video to resent Gloria for the destruction she leaves in her wake, but The Lumineers present her story in all its tragic complexity with such an authenticity that causes viewers to pity her, love her and feel frustrated with her. Essentially, they feel as her husband and son do.
Set on New Year’s Eve of 1979, “Life in the City” opens with lines of cocaine in a grimy bar bathroom. Gloria celebrates alone — snorting, drinking and smoking her way through the night until she finds companionship with a stranger in a phone booth. But Gloria is not a wild, carefree teenager. Her actions are empty, emotionless and hopeless, and she eventually returns home to a sleeping husband.
It is unclear if her husband, William (Josh Close), knows of the affair or that it led to pregnancy, but it seems of little consequence. In “Donna” and “Gloria,” his dedication to her well-being is gentle, genuine and heartbreaking.
In “Donna,” Gloria races into a field, sweating and shaking from booze, and tears off her dress as she stares blankly at the horizon. William races over and holds her, wrapping his arms around her small frame like a security blanket, which makes her feel safe in her vulnerability.
Unfortunately, Gloria’s episodes only get worse. By “Gloria,” her alcoholism is so severe that William comes home everyday and fearfully charges into the nursery. One day, he finds his nightmare — Gloria seizing on the floor. Forgetting about their son, William kicks down the front door, carries Gloria to the ambulance and refuses to leave her side.
Not long after returning home, Gloria is back at the bottle and smashes one over William’s head in a fit of rage. Horrified at her deed, she rushes her bleeding husband to the hospital. Before they make it, Gloria causes a severe car accident. Instead of staying beside the man who so loves her, she flees the scene of carnage.
Gloria undoubtedly loves and needs her husband, but her disease keeps her in a haze that she cannot escape, and William can’t simply love her to recovery.
“It does feel like there’s this force beyond you and beyond the person you care about that is at work and at play, and no matter what you do, it seems like the disease is going to do what it wants to do and takes over this person you really care about,” Schultz said. “You’re with them through the ups and downs.”
Being the child of an addict is arguably more difficult than being the spouse of one. Although fans can’t find out Jimmy’s full story until the next installment is released, lines from “Donna” and “Gloria” suggest that he is the one narrating Gloria’s story.
Throughout the narration, The Lumineers tell another story of addiction — the story of the generation after, which is left alone as their parents drank themselves into oblivion. Members of the generation become the person who devastated them.
Standing by a window in Jimmy’s nursery, Gloria collapses against the crib for support as her son is playing on the floor unattended. Even though she “couldn’t sober up to hold a baby,” the speaker, presumably adult Jimmy, does not fault her.
As the eldest of seven, Gloria acted as caregiver to her siblings with no guidance from her own mother. Jimmy acknowledges that his mother was unprepared for motherhood: “If you don’t have it, then you’ll never give it / And I don’t blame you for the way you’re livin’.”
Perhaps Jimmy’s own battle with addiction gives him this understanding perspective of his mother. No one would judge him if he raged against her and resented her, but he persists.
Though he might not hate Gloria, he does have a breaking point. Despite the love one may have for someone with an addiction, or perhaps because of that love, there is a moment when one decides they cannot watch the self-destruction any longer.
“Gloria, you crawled up on your cross / Gloria, you made us sit and watch.” In these lyrics, William watches his beloved fall into an abyss, and Jimmy watches his mother fade away. He eventually falls into the same pattern, with his own son experiencing the same torment that Jimmy once endured. And so the spiral continues, and the disease infects the next in line.
The final lines of “Gloria” portray Jimmy’s breaking point. He asks his mother if she, too, has reached a breaking point because of the way she has been living. As a bloodied, disheveled Gloria flees the wrecked car, abandons her injured husband and attempts to outrun the police, we hear Jimmy’s questions: “Gloria, will you just decide? / Gloria, there’s easier ways to die / Gloria, have you had enough?”
Schultz eloquently describes loving an addict as “standing among the crashing waves, trying to bend the will of the sea.” One can admire it, fear it and love it — but it doesn’t matter. The wave will continue to crash. It can be gently at your feet, it can pummel you square in the chest and sometimes, it manages to do both at the same time.
Jimmy doesn’t blame Gloria, but she must choose if she has had enough of the drinking, the hospitals, the pain and the cycle of destruction. The last lines imply that Jimmy will walk away if she is not ready to face recovery. Spending every day wondering if the wave will lap at your feet or leave you struggling to breathe is exhausting, and watching Gloria kill herself slowly is far too painful.