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The album's big idea

Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 11:58 AM

What a contentious issue the “concept album” is.  Before we can even argue Good or Bad, artists, critics, and fans argue over even the most basic questions:  what IS a concept album?  And which albums fit the bill? 

The arguments start with what many people feel is the first concept album in the rock world – Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles.  Some point out that apart from the title track and its reprise, and maybe one or two other tracks, Sergeant Pepper is full of stand-alone songs that don’t adhere to any story or theme. 

Fair enough.  But The Beatles did intend the album to be a single entity, and if the songs stand alone quite well, that just means they’re great songs.  The “concept” here was that John, Paul, George and Ringo were assuming the alter ego of the titular band, and presenting us with a show.  To me, that is a concept album. 

Of course, The Beatles did not invent the concept album.  If we restrict the conversation to “albums,” by which we mean 12-inch long-playing discs of vinyl (or the digital formats that followed them), the first concept albums might be credited to Frank Sinatra, for albums like In The Wee Small Hours (1955) and the masterpiece Only the Lonely (1958).  These were really song-cycles, taking you through a dark night of the musical soul at the end of a relationship.  Even if the songs came from different songwriters, they were collected and sequenced in a way that suggested a narrative arc. 

Once you start looking back, though, the “concept album” quickly seems like an idea that’s almost as old as music itself.  Operas are musical stories, so are Schubert’s song cycles.  Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century wrote her Ordo Virtutum – “the Play of the Virtues” – as a kind of conceptual proto-music theater piece.  And what was Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey if not a kind of aural concept album?  They would, after all, have been sung back in Homer’s day. 

Still, for most of us, the concept album has come to be associated with the psychedelic and progressive rock of the 1970s: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, The Wall; Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway; David Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars; and the like.  We don’t normally think of artists like Bruce Springsteen or Public Enemy as conceptual types, but the Boss’s Nebraska (1982) and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990) definitely have a big idea holding them together. 

Indie rock seemed at first to be the antithesis of the concept album concept, if you will. But Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998), The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday (2005), and The Mountain Goats’ Sunset Tree (2005) all feel like concept albums to me.  None slavishly follows a story, but each song seems to mean more when heard in sequence, and each album ends with a song that feels somehow transformed by what has come before.  Now, concept albums are in evidence everywhere, most visibly in the newly anointed Grammy-winning Album of the Year by Arcade Fire, The Suburbs.  There’s no story, but the subtle perils of buying into the suburban dream haunt every one of the album’s 16 songs. 

The fact is that sometimes artists have something to say that takes more than a single 3-minute form. And this is likely to continue for as long as we have artists.    

What do you love or hate about concept albums?  Leave a comment

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