When it comes to music, there’s almost nothing better rediscovering one of your favourite artists; the feeling of petty nostalgia provided by delving into the back catalogue of one of your first musical loves is unbeatable. It’s like meeting an old friend you’ve not seen for a while – well, perhaps not as socially fulfilling, but it’s a one-way conversation of the best kind. The great thing about this column is I experience that feeling on a regular basis, but with entire genres instead of singular artists. For the past two weeks, though, my music choices have been solely unified by one property: music that’s good to revise to. That’s meant I haven’t had time for the kind of sonic immersion that usually precedes these entries. So, this week is a bit of a departure. I’ll be talking about one of my favourite artistic fusions – the concept album.
A great deal of lyrics have always seemed pretty shallow to me. The idea of a series of short vignettes limited by rhyme-schemes and song lengths didn’t strike me as particularly interesting. Why read short stories when you could read a great novel? There was rarely any room to establish any kind of overarching theme or interesting lyrical development, but all that changed when I discovered concept albums. Concept albums made me reconsider, and even redefine, what I thought of as ‘listening to music’. It was no longer just an activity – it was something more of an experience (whatever that means). Gone were the disconnected ideas of single songs grouped together, replaced by something much more coherent and wholesome.
Concept albums were a large part of the cultural phenomena that heralded the rise of album-oriented rock, beginning with early attempts at some kind of lyrical unity, as demonstrated in The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Mothers Of Invention’s Freak Out! The loose themes explored on albums like these quickly developed into more cohesive excursions, using the length of the album as a canvas to explore some really rather complex ideas. The Who’s Tommy, which was regarded as the first ‘rock opera’, used its format to develop several characters and a consistent plot, propelling the idea of the concept album to the attention of the general public.
Once the infamous rise of progressive rock had commenced, concept albums very quickly became ten a penny. Perhaps the main providers were Pink Floyd, whose albums explored everything from the Orwellian dichotomy of Animals to the sprawling intricacies of The Wall. Others included Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway offers one of the most bizarre concepts I’ve ever heard) and Yes, whose lyrical musings have been based on Hindu shastras. It seems as though there was a feeling (if not an obligation) that the sheer grandiosity of the music had to be matched by the lyrical content.
Concept albums are not confined purely to the boundaries of rock music, though. A great deal of rappers have taken to the format, from socially conscious hip-hop group the Roots to ubiquitous critical praise receptacle Kendrick Lamar. Rap concept albums did away with the conceptual abstractions employed so often on progressive rock records, choosing instead to focus on telling more realistic, hard-hitting stories. Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City recounts the gritty realities he encountered whilst growing up in his hometown of Compton, fusing the incredible lyrical detail of Lamar’s delivery with a compelling narrative that makes for one of the finest concept albums in existence.
Concept albums aren’t exactly rife nowadays. Personally, I think they’re too closely associated with all the worst excesses and the ultimate implosion of first-wave progressive rock to ever reclaim that kind of mainstream attention. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t some hidden gems still cropping up. Sufjan Stevens’ albums have covered religion, his relationship with his mother, and historical synopses of US states, whilst Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a beautiful, harrowing tale of modern-day isolation. There’s plenty of depth and beauty to be found in solitary songs, both musically and lyrically, but if you’ve never experienced anything a little more unified, I suspect you’re missing out.
Recommended Listening Pink Floyd – Animals Sufjan Stevens – Illinois Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D City Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase. Kraftwerk – Autobahn Opeth – Still Life