Thursday, 19 April 2012

Concept Albums

Time to talk about some music! I was going to talk about a specific band but then I realised that I don't know enough polysyllabic words to talk seriously about music without sounding like a know-nothing asshole, so instead I'm gonna do the general idea of concept albums.

So, to start, I should probably explain what exactly a concept album is. Basically, to illustrate the difference between a concept album and any other kind of album, let me compare one of each kind. Let's take the best-selling album in history, Michael Jackson's Thriller (a boss of an album, incidentally), and Thirteenth Step by A Perfect Circle (an even bigger boss of an album, if you ask me, but I digress). You don't need to be familiar with the albums to appreciate my point, but, uh, you probably should be anyway. They're pretty fucking awesome.

Let us consider some songs from each album. Thriller's three most famous tracks will do for starters; "Beat It", "Billie Jean" and, of course "Thriller". If you listen and compare, the songs are quite different, in both arrangement and subject matter, though the latter concerns me more here; "Beat It" is about street culture, "Billie Jean" is about lying and obsession, "Thriller" is an excellently veiled love song. There's no overt or even implicit connection between the three, no relationship.

On the other hand, let's have a look at Thirteenth Step. I'll pluck three songs at random; "Weak and Powerless", "The Nurse Who Loved Me" and "The Noose". So what are these about, oh, well, "Weak and Powerless" is about addiction, "The Nurse Who Loved Me" is also about addiction and "The Noose" is...about addiction as well? Well, I guess we've stumbled across a concept album!

So, yeah, in short, a concept album is an album where a unifying concept (hence the name) runs through all the songs. Often, it's a story, as is the case with such epic albums as Ludo's Broken Bride, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Pink Floyd's The Wall, but as often as not it's an abstract idea, like a single theme (addiction, in the case of Thirteenth Step), a recurring lyrical idea (69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields and Murder Ballads by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds being exactly what they say on the tin) or, for want of a better word, a "gimmick" (Strange Little Girls by Tori Amos, for example, is all covers of songs by men reimagined from a woman's perspective). Having explained the concept, if you will, of concept albums, I should probably explain why I decided to talk about them.

Well, sufficed to say, I think concept albums are pretty fucking great. Sometimes regular albums can feel a bit disjointed, like the songs don't join together quite right, but with concept albums, especially the truly great ones (Illinois by Sufjan Stevens, The Wall by Pink Floyd, Rain Dogs by Tom Waits), there's a...fullness to them. They feel more rich and textured in their thematic explorations, examining them in greater depth (the frequently aforementioned Thirteenth Step, for example, explores addiction from twelve different viewpoints and never for a moment feels stale in doing so). Which, by the way, is not to disparage non-concept albums in any way - in fact, my favourite album of all time is not even a studio album, but a live album; Daft Punk's Alive 2007.

I myself have always dreamed of releasing a concept album but I've given up on any hope of a musical career at this stage in my life. I've got a job that I can't just walk away from and I've more-or-less come to terms with the fact that all my fantasising about being a glamorous indie rock 'n' roll star will remain just that - fantasies. But it's cool, I'm not bitter about it. I can still make my music here in my apartment, since my roomie (a pretty cool dude, if reserved) doesn't mind. But yeah, concept albums. Listen to some.


  1. Out of curiosity, what's your roomie's name?

    1. Before I answer; if I say I don't want to talk about that stuff, I'm presuming that you'll press me further, yeah?

    2. It depends. If you answer it now, the conversation could be done and over with. If you say you don't want to talk about it, well, it could become a long drawn out excursion for a small amount of information that will likely come out anyway.

      Besides, I'm pretty sure I know anyway. Theta?

    3. I'm guessing that using the phrase "built like a gymnast" was a bad idea for anonymity then.

    4. You forget that I'm one of the people that actually reads DStM, instead of just skimming. So yes. Bad idea. <3