SONG MEANING: “Ophelia” is about a brush with fame and thinking about how dangerous an encounter like that can be.
The Lumineers’ last album came out in 2012, and we all probably still listen to “Ho Hey”–I know I do. The band became famous very quickly and is known all over the world; Entertainment Weekly even calls The Lumineers “America’s answer to Mumford and Sons.”
Well, now the band has a new album coming out; it’s called Cleopatra, and everyone I’ve read has been theorizing that it’s going to be darker and moodier than the light-hearted feeling of The Lumineer’s last album. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, frontman Wesley Schultz even describes Cleopatra as a “heavier record,” and Rolling Stone explains that “[o]n ‘Ophelia,’ the darker tone of the Lumineers’ new music can be heard within the familiar stomps, claps and harmonies that made their more whimsical “Ho Hey” a hit.
However the music for Cleopatra will be shaped, The Lumineer’s most recent single “Ophelia” is certainly fun and definitely reminds me of “Ho Hey.” In NPR’s interview with him, Schultz explains that “Ophelia” is “a long, ominous march forward in step with ‘Ho Hey.'” He explains that “[t]he album is sonically pretty different from the first one. The common thread is a lot of the percussion has remained.” “Ophelia” has its differences, but I think those who liked The Lumineers (the first album) are going to like this song too.
The Meaning of “Ophelia” by The Lumineers: Line-by-line Analysis
Unlike with many of the songs that I write about, The Lumineers has been very candid about what “Ophelia” means. Schultz explains it to Entertainment Weekly:
“Ophelia is a vague reference to people falling in love with fame. That spotlight can seem like an endless buffet, but in reality, you’re just shiny, bright, and new to people for a quick moment — and then you have the rest of you life to live. It’s about caring so much about the people around me, and wondering if we’re all going to be alright.”
“Ophelia” is about a brush with fame, and the character Ophelia represents fame. When the band released their last album, “Ho Hey” became incredibly popular, and the band was launched into the spotlight. “Ho Hey” reached the 3rd spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and The Lumineers was invited to musical festivals–they went from being a local indie band to being an international phenomenon.
As with songs like “Pedestrian at Best” by Courtney Barnett (an energetic reverie on recently acquired fame), The Lumineers most recent addition to the musical world is a similar, though more disguised, contemplation of what it means to have been famous. Now that things have quieted down for the band, it’ll be interesting to see what the world makes of their next album.
In Verse 1, Schultz sings, “Ah, ah, when I was younger / I, I should’ve known better.” He may have wanted to be famous, but now he knows how difficult and unrewarding the spotlight can be. He continues, “And I can’t feel no remorse / And you don’t feel nothing back.” He made it through, his feelings numbed but still glad that the pressure from fame has eased up. The person he’s talking to, Ophelia, is similarly unfeeling, which could mean that fame really doesn’t give back emotionally: she’s a cold and aloof person to be in a relationship with.
Schultz continues the verse singing, “I, I got a new girlfriend here / Feels like he’s on top.” This seems to be a reference to when he first was in the relationship with Ophelia. It was euphoric, and he was on top: she was great, and fame was exciting. Or perhaps this is the girlfriend after Ophelia, and he’s moved on. In this case, these lines are written after he has realized that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But I think the song’s being sung during his relationship with Ophelia because the last line of the verse is “And you can’t see past my blindness.” He doesn’t understand how things really work, how difficult of a “girlfriend” Ophelia can be and still needs to learn.
In the Chorus, The Lumineers sing, “Oh, Ophelia / You’ve been on my mind, girl, since the flood” and “Heaven help the fool who falls in love.” The chorus seems to be written post-fame and post-relationship. “[T]he flood” seems to be a reference to the band becoming famous, and while the band pities “the fool who falls in love” with fame, they’ve been thinking about it, which has led to them writing this song.
In the Second Verse, the band sings, “I, I got a little paycheck / You got big plans and you gotta move.” They made some money from their time in the spotlight, but Ophelia (or fame) doesn’t stay with one person very long and has to “move on.” Ophelia is a wanderer and only loves one person for a little time, leaving that man to keep thinking about her after she’s left. When she leaves, The Lumineers “feel nothing at all,” realizing that Ophelia “can’t feel nothing small”–she is only drawn to large attractions and can’t enjoy simple day-to-day life.
The Pre-Chorus is short but important. The music simplifies, and Schultz sings, “Honey, I love you / That’s all she wrote.” Fame left the band leaving nothing but a simple “I love you” that if preceded by a break-up, may mean nothing at all. “Fame is fleeting and not to be trusted,” the band seems to say.
And that’s the moral of this entire song: fame may “love” you intensely for a moment, but it will move on, and you may have been better off if you’d never entered into that relationship with “Ophelia.”
MY CHALLENGE TO YOU: Why do you think the band names the song “Ophelia”? Why would anyone name fame “Ophelia”? Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page about the Shakespeare character of the same name. Maybe you should start your search there. Let me know what your theories are!
Clifford Stumme has his master’s in English literature and is a blogger and a college instructor/center-director at Liberty University. He likes juggling and reading/writing, and he is married to the wonderful and beautiful Wife April. He thinks pop music is awesome. Seriously awesome.