SONG MEANING: “Ophelia” is about a brush with fame and thinking about how dangerous an encounter like that can be.

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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.

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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.

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The cover for The Lumineers new album Cleopatra

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Clifford Stumme

  • In Hamlet, Ophelia is speculated to have killed herself out of grief after the death of her father and witnessing Hamlet go insane. Maybe “Honey, I love you… That’s all she wrote” was fame’s goodbye to the band or something. I don’t know.

  • SD

    “The flood” could be a reference to how Ophelia supposedly kills herself by drowning in Shakespeare’s haml

  • Nieto

    Ophelia is also the title of a prestigious painting. Ophelia’s death has been praised as one of the most poetically written death scenes in literature.

  • fellow traveler

    Ophelia is also a song by The Band, their famous live album with Bob Dylan is called “Before the Flood.” Maybe a musical shout-out!

  • I have heard that since the band is from Denver that the “flood” could be in reference to the 2013 floods that Colorado experienced. Any truth to that?

  • Mitchell Adams

    Maybe since they’re from Denver it could have something to do with the hostel/bar Ophelia’s

    • That’s a good point. I’ll have to look into that. Thanks!

  • Katherine Beauregard

    First time I heard this song, I thought “Oh, Hamlet!” probably because I’m a Shakespeare freak and I cannot hear anything without connecting it to Shakespeare…

    • Haha! That’s hilarious. I haven’t heard that myself, but I kind of wish I could now.

  • Genna

    Well I understand the connection of Ophelia as a name for the aloof and cold lover that is fame. In the play by Shakespeare Ophelia rejects Hamlet’s love and returns all his gifts of love. It was love that could not be returned, like Hamlet the band gives their all into their relationship with ‘Ophelia,’ or fame, as it is the ultimate goal, a great love and great fame, but a relationship with Ophelia and fame are strictly one-sided by nature.

    • Well, that’s really interesting. Maybe that’s the reason for it. Thanks!

  • gypsymoon737

    I agree I thought it was a reference to the Band and Bob Dylan when I first heard the song.

  • Olivia Krohn

    Because the singer is ready to say “Get thee to a nunnery!”

  • Olivia Krohn

    Act 3, scene 1, 114–149
    There’s plenty of discussion in literature whether Hamlet really loved Ophelia, whether he dismisses her/”breaks up” with her as an act or in truth, but as he tells Ophelia he did love her, but does not love her anymore, he tells her “Get thee to a nunnery” such that she is better off living a life of abstinence, far away from sinners like himself, and better off not procreating (“why woulds’t thou be a breeder of
    sinners?”). He tells her, “Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.”
    There’s also some scholars that thing rather than wishing her to a convent, “nunnery” is supposed to be slang for a whorehouse, which puts an entirely different spin on the words, but still jaded on Hamlet’s side.
    The scene ends with Ophelia concluding Hamlet is ill or crazy.

  • Olivia Krohn

    Likewise, following the metaphor of a singer’s brush with fame, he realizes that, like Ophelia, it is something which he loved once, but loves no more. He is saying she should get herself to a convent, where she will not corrupt anyone anymore, (or a whorehouse, where she belongs.) It’s a break-up song with fame.

  • Kathryn c Spencer

    Song, instrumentals, the video, the dance bleeds happiness and epitomizes being in love ! Evokes a smile in me and time againLove 💘 reference to “she dies nothing small!” Feels like respect!

  • Crystal

    I really like your interpretation of Ophelia. It calls out to my past life as an English major. I’ll have to go look at your other lyric analysis posts. To take the analysis a step further, if he’s in a relationship with a “Ophelia” then he is either consciously or unconsciously casting himself in the role of Hamlet.

    Ophelia is more an innocent victim than a woman who moves coldly from man to man. If we give the Lumineers’ Ophelia the same characteristics as the Ophelia of the play, she would follow this progression: 1. A innocent and naïve girl that is obedient to male authority (she doesn’t reject Hamlet’s love because she wants to, but because she is instructed to by her father and brother) 2. A still innocent girl who has been driven mad by grief and kills herself as a result.

    Hamlet once told Ophelia that he loved her but he treats her harshly during the play, either mad or pretending to be mad. The line “you can’t see past my blinders” seems to indicate that this Ophelia is reaching out to him while he is hiding himself.

    The lyrics repeat “I feel no remorse” and “I feel nothing at all” mirroring the lack of remorse Hamlet has for his treatment of Ophelia, even after her death (which he caused by murdering her father).

    Although he describes his feelings of her in the lines “he feels like he’s on top” and “you’ve been on my mind girl like a drug” those aren’t pronouncements of love, just of excitement and obsession. The only time love is referenced in the song it is actually a declaration from Ophelia: “Honey I love you, that’s all she wrote”. I think it’s safe to say that when he says “heaven help a fool who falls in love” he isn’t talking about himself, but about Ophelia. She loved him but he only loved how he felt when he was with her. Now that she is dead only heaven can help her.

    I completely agree with the previous comments that the lyric “that’s all she wrote” is a reference to the goodbye in a suicide note and “the flood” is invoking imagery of her death by drowning. Additionally I think that when he says “you don’t feel nothing back” it’s because she has already died.

    So what does all of this add up to? I think that the choice of Ophelia as the main character makes the relationship is far more complex than just saying that he had a relationship with fame and it has moved on. The name Ophelia invokes a romantic image of a tragic innocent who had no power in her world, not a cold aloof wanderer.

    What I take from this in the end is that each person who becomes famous has their own Ophelia. Fame legitimately loves those it has a relationship with, although they are too young understand how destructive that relationship can be. When the relationship ends the ‘madness’ of infatuation wears off and ‘Hamlet’ is left to figure out the rest of his life but “Ophelia” is left with nothing and dies.

    • Wow, thanks for the really deep thoughts on that. I need to revisit this song. You bring out a lot of depth in it.

    • Tina

      This interpretation makes perfect sense.
      Lol… Someone said this song reminded him of me. Sad to say it makes more sense than what was intended.

  • Rit

    Hi Clifford! The explanation was convincing, but why don’t you do some Beatles?

    • Hmm…great question! I might make a video about a Beatles song soon, but they’re too old for the blog post about them to get any traction. It would get buried and no one would see it. 🙁

  • Phil

    ha! for some reason i’ve always thought the song was totally about a flamboyant girl from NOLA that some hipster guy meets and becomes infatuated with after the flooding from Katrina.. =D

  • TA

    I agree with your interpretation.

  • Jo

    So my question is off topic. I am one of those people who mixes up lyrics and I need to check them out before I start singing along and my friends go “she’s doing it again! hahaha.” So is it “And you can’t see past my blindness.” or “And you can’t see past my blinders.” Thank you.
    BTW I love the song and I enjoy reading your interpretations

  • Ophelia is truly an interesting character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I read the play during my junior year of high school and saw the play at Orange Coast College. I authored a poem in the style of Shakespeare my junior year that my English teacher Pat Barrett said absolutely blew his mind. This is getting back to my point that my original intellectual property has not been recognized for being noteworthy with monetary value. The premise is that Ophelia is a vestal virgin more or less dominated by her father (Polonius). Polonius is a control freak for the time period and oppresses Ophelia. Ophelia in turn falls for Hamlet and is showered by his gifts, but not his love. In the end Hamlet ends his courtship with Ophelia and tells her to “get thee to a nunnery.” Convinced that Hamlet is mad, Ophelia herself ends up drowning to death. The death scene is reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables sinking in the lake akin to the lady of Shalott. Ironically as Anne is sinking she is saved by Gilbert Blythe who ultimately becomes her husband. Of course this is where Lucy Maude Montgomery’s story of Anne Shirley diverges from the lady of Shalott. The song by the Lumineers that is out now attests to Shakespeare’s characters to a certain extent. The story that I myself know of an old friend is something like I will describe. “Ophelia” was married and had a family. As far as I can tell she loved her first husband and had a child with him. She used to say that she really wanted to have a child with him so that it would be a piece of him and a piece of her. “Ophelia” had a very domineering father who thought she was mentally ill when she was a teenager. She once talked about almost freezing to death walking home during the winter when her car cut out in the snow. She made it home though! Anyway, from what I know “Ophelia” later divorced her first husband and left him. I have heard that she is now married again and that the man she is married to is quite unstable! In order to have married him she herself must have lost some of her senses. I can understand the situation of being domineered and held back by both parents. I have been through numerous personal struggles and have mentioned one instance of the theft of my earned finances in this post. I have also been set up with many insane men! My response to the situation is that I have found the matchmakers and the matches they made birds of a feather! In other words, I found myself caught in the middle. Ironically I still have all of my marbles and then some. I am looking forward to moving on and marrying an awesome guy. Thus, I like the name I have been dubbed, “Cinderella.”

  • Janine

    I actually wanted to know if the reference to the flood was about the big flood we had here in CO 3 years ago. It could be a double reference, but since they are from CO that was something I’m really curious to know.

    • I think it’s more about the fame narrative. Could be that the flood in CO influenced it?