Alright, friends. This is one of my nerdy analytical posts. You’ve been warned. I would also suggest looking up songs/lyrics as I list them.
As many of you may know, the Lumineers are my favorite band, and over the past year especially their music has meant a lot to me. A few months ago, I was listening more carefully to their second album, Cleopatra, and began piecing together connections between all of the songs. I had already known about some of the connections based on the music videos the Lumineers had already released. I delved deeper and within a couple of hours I had a playlist of their songs that had an actual storyline about the title character in their second album and included some of the music from their first self-titled album as well. So I wanted to share what I came up with. I know there are problems and some holes, but overall I think it’s pretty cohesive. I’ll explain each song as I go down the playlist, and hopefully you can find some enjoyment in how I interpreted Cleopatra.
1. Flowers in Your Hair
Flowers in Your Hair basically sets the stage of the story. The song itself is very short, but for me personally it always puts me in a good mood and gives the overall feel of happy days in the past. The lyrics talk about a couple meeting each other when they’re young and growing up with each other, and from there becoming childhood sweethearts. Entering into the story, we already have two people who are deeply in love.
2. Sleep on the Floor
The couple dreams of adventure, of getting out of their small town and seeing the world. The song is from the perspective of the male protagonist, who is trying to convince the female protagonist to elope with him, to get married and leave town as soon as possible to start their life and adventures together. At this point they are still young and have been saving money for their future and he doesn’t have much to give her, but proposes with a cheap ring, at least until he can find something better.
However, as we know from Cleopatra, the female protagonist’s father has just passed away (“When you knelt by mattress and asked for my hand /…As I laid in a black dress / with my father in a casket, I had no plans”). His passing leaves her absolutely devastated and unprepared to handle any kind of emotional commitment to her fiance and the engagement is broken off when she returns the ring. The male protagonist is also devastated for different reasons, and decides to find a new life for himself elsewhere.
After the male protagonist leaves their small town, he can’t get over the breakup, and as a result rebounds with another woman in an attempt to forget “Ophelia.” However, his love never subsides, and not long after he decides to write her a letter to tell her about how he feels, but does not hold anything back:
“When I was younger / I should have known better/I can’t feel no remorse / And you don’t feel nothing back /…Oh Ophelia, heaven help the fool who falls in love”
The song/letter references his “new girlfriend,” and says “I don’t feel nothing at all.” While they’re in different verses, I interpret it as him saying that any feelings he has for Ophelia drown out whatever he might feel for this new girlfriend fling. To his surprise, Ophelia writes back: “Honey I love you (that’s all she wrote).” This rekindles some of what was lost in their separation, and they continue exchanging letters. However, neither of them are emotionally prepared to be together again and they’ve started on different paths.
So this part is a little confusing, but I’ll try to justify it. The Lumineers basically split their subject’s life into three distinct phases: Ophelia, Angela, and Cleopatra. Even in their music videos, each video kind of splits in two different directions. The music video for Ophelia stars the band itself, but the video for Sleep on the Floor portrays a young woman who has just lost someone important to her (presumably her father), and at the funeral her boyfriend approaches her to encourage her to run away with him. The split occurs as she makes the decision whether to run after him or to stay at her father’s funeral, representing two possibilities of how her life could have gone and ultimately two different people. As the first phase in this storyline, Ophelia represents innocence, love, and the heartache that comes with it, especially given the circumstances of the protagonists’ relationship at this point in the story.
Submarines is one of my “stretch” songs, but I think it can work very well in this context. It also gives us a ton of really important background information for our male protagonist. First off: the location (“Dead of night on the eastern coast,” “Ships will rust in Baldwin Bay”). Baldwin Bay is located on Long Island. The “little paycheck” that is also referred to in Ophelia is from the male protagonist’s job working in some kind of job near there. We can assume he is trying to start the adventure he so desperately wants in New York City. After work one day he goes to the local bar and one of the regular drunks begins telling about an experience he just had, one that seems to have caused him to drink even more than usual. Since he is an alcoholic, no one takes what he says seriously: “I believe submarines / Underneath deep blue seas / Saw the flags, Japanese / No one will believe me / Ran back to the town bar and I told the people how / I had seen a submarine and everyone laughed aloud /…Everyone thinks I’m a liar, no one knows the truth.” It would be logical that no one would believe him since it wouldn’t make sense for a Japanese submarine to be on the east coast. After being laughed at and ignored, despite this vital information he believes he has, the drunk accepts that no one will trust him: “In the end it boils down to credibility / I had none so I will die with the secrets of the sea.” Later that night he dies of alcohol poisoning. Again, our male protagonist was at the bar while the drunk was warning of the submarines. In the storyline it doesn’t matter if the submarines are real or not, the drunk just serves as a foreshadowing mechanism. The next day Pearl Harbor is bombed and the United States enters World War II.
5. Gun Song
Gun Song is from the perspective of both protagonists, and they switch off from line to line. They have both continued exchanging letters, and with Ophelia still grieving the loss of her father, the letters are the only things that give her comfort and are reminders of her old life and love. “I don’t own a single gun / But if I did you’d be the one.” The male protagonist gives her a feeling of security and protection, which is also sometimes a feeling put towards guns. Ophelia also is still completely dedicated to him and could not imagine being with anyone else: “I don’t have a sweetheart yet / But if I did I’d break my neck.”
Excited for the prospect of an adventure, the male protagonist immediately enlists in the Army. While he’s there, he’s learning to hold a gun and shoot for the first time: “To hold it, aim it, make all of the bad men run / But I don’t own a single gun.” However, he is also preoccupied with comforting Ophelia, wanting to be there for her in any way he can to help her cope with her grief: “To please her, make her want to stay in my arms, she’d rest / But I don’t have a sweetheart yet.” Furthermore, his own father served during the First World War, and he hopes to make him proud: “And one day I’ll pray I’ll be more than my father’s son / But I don’t own a single gun.”
As Ophelia is clearing out the house of her father’s belongings, she finds something interesting: “I can’t believe what I found in Daddy’s / Sock drawer, sock drawer today / It was a pistol, a Smith and Wesson / Holy, holy shit.” As she holds the gun, which she didn’t know her father had, she begins to wonder what else she may never have known about him. Her depression deepens: “Things I knew when I was young / Some were true and some were wrong.”
NOTE: This song was written by Wes, the Lumineers’ lead singer, in honor of his father who died. He did not know that his father owned a gun, and so Ophelia’s reactions and thoughts are inspired by Wes’.
6. Classy Girls
This is another song from both protagonists’ perspectives. Our male protagonist is on leave after training before he ships out for the war the next day. They meet at a bar and reconnect, talk, dance, exchange stories, and their love is further rekindled. He shows Ophelia that he held on to the ring he gave her for the engagement, in hopes that she might be in a better place to get married, maybe even that night before he goes to war. However, she refuses to kiss him and lets him down gently, telling him “it’s just what it is.” What this means is that Ophelia is still adjusting to her new life without her father and cannot fathom losing him as well.
7. Stubborn Love
Frustrated with losing Ophelia, the male protagonist admits to himself that she has flaws: “She’ll lie and steal and cheat / And beg you from her knees / And make you think she means it this time / She’ll tear a hole in you / The one you can’t repair.” However, he reflects on “when we were young” and all the times they had together. He remains determined to talk to her about how strongly he feels and how strongly he knows she feels: “I’m standing on your porch screaming out / And I won’t leave until you come downstairs.” As they talk, he begins to understand why she can’t commit to him: “I don’t blame you dear / For running like you did all these years / I would do the same, you best believe.” They part ways, promising to see each other again when he returns. However, the prospect of losing him is still on Ophelia’s mind, making everything she has gone through thus far dealing with loss even worse.
8. Charlie Boy
At this point, we finally have the male protagonist’s name: Charlie. This song is a reflection of those leaving for war and the effects that World War II has already had on the community he and Ophelia are from: Metuchin, New Jersey (“Metuchin mourn our loss”). The loss is not referring to Charlie, but other young men in the community that have already lost their lives. Ophelia, seeing the loss around her, becomes even more worried for Charlie. As he says goodbye to his family, his father tells his mother: “Lillian, don’t hang your head /…In uniform you raised a man / Who volunteered to stand.” Charlie’s father’s pride is coming through, which motivates Charlie and he decides he is making the right choice, although still has doubts about his decision to leave Ophelia.
NOTE: This song is a little problematic since it is actually referring to the Vietnam War: “First born in ’44 / Kennedy made him believe / we could do much more.” Wes’ uncle Charlie was killed in Vietnam, hence the inspiration for the song. However, the feel of the song and message remains more or less the same for the storyline. I prefer the World War II setting as well because the vibe I always got from the Lumineers’ first album was more pre-1950 with so much acoustic sound and sounding more raw and real than other music nowadays.
9. Slow It Down
Slow it down represents a major transition for Ophelia. With Charlie at war, her depression has almost reached its lowest point: “The walls are closing in / With velvet curtains.” As a result, she stops caring for herself. She cannot hold down a job to help support her mother, and turns to selling herself to make ends meet. This results in a pregnancy and the disapproval of her community; the smashed car windows are from the vandalism and property damage she faces due to her exile (“Smashed in my car window / Didn’t take the stereo”). This is the point where the transition from Ophelia to Angela takes place: “I feel her filth in my bones.” Ophelia has been damaged to the core by all of the experiences she’s had and feels like a different person. However, Slow It Down has two voices, the second being the father of her unborn child. He offers support for Ophelia/Angela through her depression: “Slow it down, Angie come back to bed / Rest your arms, rest your legs.” For the most part, he is only there to help her through everything. Angela has feelings of a sort for him (“And when it came to love / We were not good enough”), but still has love only for Charlie, and continues to write to him. Lastly, Angela is also becoming more independent and becoming numb to what other people think of her: “And when she stood she stood tall / She’ll make a fool of you all / Don’t ask for cigarettes / She ain’t got nothin’ left for you.”
10. In the Light
In the Light represents another letter Charlie writes to Angela, explaining to her that he can’t let her go and regrets leaving her. He is also aware of the pregnancy, and is thankful just to still have her love and begins to comprehend how difficult everything has been for her.
“I don’t know why, I just can’t let it go /…Fate dealt you a tricky hand / Now you’re just left alone in your mind / I have gone away /…Right here in the light / Hold me and don’t you ever let this die.”
The song also shows Charlie being “the light” for Angela at this point.
NOTE: This is the point in the storyline where most of the events have already happened. Many of the songs after this point are developing relationships between the characters.
11. Sick in the Head
This song is the thought process of Angela when seeing how society is viewing her, now a few months along in her pregnancy out of wedlock: “People say I’m no good / Write me off, oh they should / Fuck ’em they’re just sick in the head.” Her independence is still growing, and decides that she “won’t live like them.” At this point she starts considering going on an adventure of her own, just like she and Charlie talked about before her father’s death. Even so, she still has to explain her plans to her partner: “I don’t know if it’s alright with you / But I’ll be gone / A ghost will be here in my stead.” Her partner is of course angry about this, considering they are about to have a child together. He begs her to stay and she reluctantly says yes.
This song shows another split for our female protagonist. She can either stay with her partner, a man she barely has feelings for, and raise their child together, or she can leave and pursue a better life for herself elsewhere. By the way, this is exactly the choice the star of the music video faces, and the option that is followed in the video is her leaving in the middle of the night. She takes a car and liberates herself from her old life and is free to be everything and everything she wants to be (“Home at last”). Feeling young and renewed, she always keeps Charlie posted about where she is. This is one song where looking up the lyrics would be really helpful.
13. My Eyes
This song basically serves as the reaction of Angela’s partner after she leaves. Angela broke her promise to be with him and raise their child (“You promised it all but you lied”), and will also be taking his child away from him (“What did you say to my only child?”). He also points out that Angela is in a state where she cannot be in between on anything, and she cannot settle for him: “It’s all or nothing to you.” This ultimately results in her developing stronger feelings for Charlie now that nothing else is holding her back.
14. Flapper Girl
This is basically an exchange of letters between Angela and Charlie. She tells him things that she’s seen and done on her travels, one of them being getting a new haircut. She writes to him about even the most mundane things she sees: “…local news / Firemen in their trucks cut loose / A local boy’s shoes /…Business men dressed in slacks.” In her new life, Angela is overjoyed by the smallest of things, almost a return to innocence and when she was young and together with Charlie. He promises to “never leave you again /…I’ve been gone but you’re still my lady.” He also talks about living a life of luxury together, that he’ll “buy one for us when I get back / A big Cadillac.”
Now that Angela is not tied down to anything, they have the freedom to be whatever they want to be. For the first time since the night at the bar, Charlie and Angela both feel like they have a chance of having a life together.
15. Gale Song
Definitely look up the lyrics for this one.
With the revelation that they would be together after the war, Charlie sends Angela the ring he originally proposed with and she accepts. Gale Song can switch between both characters, but the sentiment of a deep love over the vast distance remains the same both ways. Their love is so strong that it is almost as if they are right there with each other all the time, remembering the old love they had and the new love they will experience after the war.
16. Long Way From Home
The months pass like this with the exchange of letters and Angela has her baby, whom Charlie promises to raise as his own. However, not long after, she hears nothing from him and senses something is wrong and it seems as though she’s experiencing what Charlie is. She feels heartache for the first time since she left Metuchin and is unable to sleep most nights: “…You were laid up in bed / Holding the pain like you’re holding your breath / I prayed you could sleep, sleep like a stone / You’re right next to me, but you’re a long way from home.” She finds out after a phone call with his mother Lillian that he was killed in action: “Held on to hope like a noose, like a rope / God and medicine take no mercy on him / Poisoned his blood and burned out his throat.”
Heartbroken, Angela reflects on the relationship she had with Charlie, although now with the impossibility of being with him she feels anger for him leaving her in the first place: “Days of my youth wasted on a selfish fool / Who ran for the hills from the hand you were dealt.” However, Lillian manages to send her one last letter that was in Charlie’s pocket when he was killed. At this point she’s reminded how strongly they both felt for each other and how they both hurt each other, both of them being selfish and both immensely in love. The letter from his pocket was the first letter she sent to him after he left: “Honey I love you.”
The years go on, Angela becomes older, wiser, and more reflective. This is the transition phase for her becoming Cleopatra.
The culmination of Cleopatra’s life. The song itself touches on her father’s death, the initial separation from Charlie, her neverending love for him, her regret at not taking the first chance she had to leave with him as Ophelia, the separation from her partner and her child as Angela, and finally the end of her life as Cleopatra. The chorus of the song is also representative of what she expects when her life is over: “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.
19. Ho Hey
Because Ho Hey has to be the finale. Cleopatra dies peacefully, having lived a full life raising her child, the reason she did not give up on herself after Charlie’s death. In whatever afterlife exists for them, Cleopatra and Charlie are reunited: “I belong with you / You belong with me / You’re my sweetheart.”