It wasn’t too long ago that any artist who told their manager, label, the press, or whoever was listening, that they were recording and releasing a concept album would have had their contract burned on sight. In fact, it seems that as far as everyone was concerned, the strange, untamed beast that is the concept album had been safely consigned to the bargain bin of history, probably locked within the cosmic mullet of the 70s prog era.
Now, I have my guilty pleasures, but I would never go so far as to say I openly ever listened to Billy Joel’s first incarnation, Attila on a regular basis. Their first (and only) album focused exclusively on the life of, you guessed it, Atilla the Hun, before Mr Joel went on the to produce the contemporary god-botherer’s favourite River of Dreams. I’m not sure which was worse, but the concept album seems to be eeking it’s way back into the consciousness of today, and getting away with it. It’s nothing new having a narrative theme running through an album but it’s important to make the distinction between an album that has a theme, be it musically or lyrically and a concept album. You see, the concept album doesn’t just have threads of of tune tying it together, this way you would have to include Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The concept album has continuing trends running through it that are about the same subject. This is pretty difficult.
One of the first releases in the new wave of concept albums I noticed creeping in was Neon Neon’s Stainless Style. Musically charting the rise and eventual fall of John DeLorian, designer and inventor of the DeLorian DMC-12 car (also known as “the one in Back to the Future”. Flux capacitor not included). On the face of it, it’s a pretty fuzzy retro pop affair, but once you crack the tin foil sheen, it’s actually an amazing example. The songs chart John DeLorian’s life, pretty much chronologically, and the musical undertones change according to the timeline. Gruff Ryhs and Boom Bip have instilled an undercurrent of 70s disco samba to the tracks about DeLorian as a young man and slapped on all out 80s synth and an east coast embryonic hip hop flavour by the time we’re listening to the height of his career – in the 80s. The musical stylings are consistent with the timeline of the subject. Nice going.
The thing about the concept album is that it’s a craft. A craft not easy to master and even harder to get right. Historically the album held up as a glowing example to the rest of us is The Wall by Pink Floyd (The Who’s Tommy is a very close second). Following the character “Pink” as he goes through life, the album was later performed live from beginning to end with a pyrotechnic projection display and made into the imaginatively titled film Pink Floyd The Wall. Now, you could say that on this basis the concept album is massively self indulgent, and you’d be right, but that’s one of the best things about it. The concept album makes it ok to put on opulent live shows (Green Day’s American Idiot has been adapted for the stage by Michael Mayer) and produce eighty minute albums but having this device available means artists can not just think outside the box but break the box apart with a big sparkling silver guitar.
So, the uncertain times faced by the music industry at the moment means artists are having to think in more and more innovative ways to get their music heard, not only this, but it’s also a natural reaction to the over saturation of the charts by the industry’s default genre – pop. It’s little wonder bands are turning to the concept album as a genre. There have always been outfits that have found this formula the best fit for the music they produce (the Mars Volta being a big one) but musicians you wouldn’t have expected to ever have produced a concept album are embracing it with open arms. Danger Mouse, who has been well and truly within his comfort zone producing pop music in his previous incarnation as one half of Gnarls Barkley, has teamed up with James Mercer, vocalist from cultish indie darlings The Shins, to form Broken Bells and bring out an album of the same name following the story of two guys who meet up and end up living intensely creative lives together. It’s probably a bit autobiographical.
Either way the concept album has forged forward, evoking work like The Antlers Hospice album, a beautifully crafted musical story of a carer falling in love with a bone cancer patient or The Decemberists The Hazards of Love telling a love story between a girl called Margaret and an ethereal shape shifting being who lives in a forest as well as any of Sufjan Stevens’ “State” albums the concept album is back, and we should all clap our hands and thank the 70s prog gods for that! You never know, in the current world of pick-n-mix down loading the new rise of the concept album might actually encourage people to follow the story and listen to a whole album, you know, the way it used to be.
Here are a few concept newbies to plug into your ears for starters:
The Antlers – Hospice (French Kiss)
Neon Neon – Stainless Style (Lex)
Broken Bells – Broken Bells (Columbia)
The Knife – Tomorrow, In A Year (Rabid / Brille)
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (Rough Trade)
The Mars Volta – De-loused in the Comatorium (Universal)