While Wesley Schultz and Lumineers bandmate Jeremiah Fraites were working on the group’s third record, Schultz found a journal he’d written a decade earlier. He was flipping through the faded pages, which were filled with musings from before he became a rock star, when he came across an intriguing album concept—one, he thought, that had the potential to change how audiences listen to music.

The idea ultimately became the framework of the Denver band’s new album, III, set to be released in full on September 13. The record is made up of three separate EPs—the first arrived in May and the second in August—each of which examines the life of a different member of the fictional Sparks clan and ultimately weaves a narrative about the long-term consequences of addiction and mental health problems.

Still from “Gloria.” Courtesy of Dualtone

A 10-song concept album is a leap for the Lumineers, a band known for poppy singles like “Ho Hey” and “Ophelia.” But streaming and decreased attention spans have thrown the music industry into flux. The common strategy—singles luring fans into purchasing whole albums—doesn’t work anymore; audiences can simply buy or stream the one tune. So musicians are getting creative. Country crooner Blake Shelton, for example, experimented with releasing multiple EPs in the same year, a tactic that allowed him to repeatedly pique fans’ interest. Although its roots lay in Schultz’s journal, III takes that approach a step further, says Storm Gloor, an assistant music business professor at the University of Colorado Denver: “It’s unique that they’re trying to make it all part of a larger story.”

The Lumineers also took inspiration from Beyoncé, who sparked the visual album trend with 2016’s Lemonade. For III, Schultz and Fraites paid Kevin Phillips, who directed Netflix’s teen thriller Super Dark Times, out of their own pockets to produce videos for each song. The short films contain shocking images, enabling the group to access depths its lighthearted melodies sometimes can’t reach. “The visual aspect,” Fraites says, “lets us really show what we’re trying to convey lyrically.” To wit: In the video for “Gloria,” a mother is rushed to the hospital after collapsing from alcohol poisoning.

Still from “Donna.” Courtesy of Dualtone

The first chapter’s titular tune, “Gloria,” debuted at number two on Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales chart. But neither Schultz nor Fraites can say their new strategy has been successful until the final piece of III drops this month. Nevertheless, Schultz is optimistic: “I’m excited to not be living and dying off a single. By giving people large excerpts, hopefully that’ll help them dive all the way in.”

Meet the Sparks

The characters in III, the Lumineers’ new album.

Chapter One: Gloria
A mother is addicted to alcohol—and her family can’t help.

Chapter Two: Junior
Gloria’s grandson moves to Denver after substance abuse takes over his father’s life.

Chapter Three: Jimmy
Gloria’s son, a struggling single father, develops gambling and alcohol addictions.

This article was originally published in 5280 September 2019.
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.