The Concept of Concept Albums
Hello! Here we are, back at it again. Happy New Year to you, if it's not too late to still be saying that. I trust that 2022 is going to be a darn sight better than the last two years.
Today I would like to take a look at and explore the concept of, well, concept albums. In the words of author Martina Elicker, a concept album is an album whose tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually. They can hone in on exploring specific themes, feelings or styles, and they often involve narratives that flow from one song into the next, or even narratives that exist entirely outside of the album - accompanying narratives that can exponentially deepen and enrich the listener's enjoyment or understanding of the album. The term 'concept album' was first attributed to folk singer Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, as well as Frank Sinatra in the 1950s. Although the term is typically associated with rock, and more specifically prog rock, they aren't limited by genre or era, and due to the lack of a strict definition, the term is used fairly subjectively. Arts journalist Fiona Sturges stated that the concept albums were "originally defined as a long-player where the songs were based on one dramatic idea – but the term is subjective."
Now then, allow me to subjectively apply my own definition of the term, and share with you a few of my favourite concept albums.
Everyday Chemistry - The Beatles / [Unknown]
Everyday Chemistry is accompanied by an interesting story. Its very existence is the answer to the question, "what if The Beatles didn't split up?", and it asks the reader to indulge in a little fantasy. If you head to www.thebeatlesneverbrokeup.com, you can read a story from one Mr "James Richards", who claims to have somehow briefly travelled to an alternate reality; one where The Beatles never split up. His recollection of events involves a meeting with a mysterious man called Jonas who had come from a world where John Lennon and George Harrison were still alive, and the Beatles were very much still together. Richards supposedly took a cassette back with him, and this is how Everyday Chemistry came to be.
In reality, the album is simply a very well put-together mashup of each of the band members' solo careers following their departure from The Beatles, with each song comprising of at least four tracks from the respective solo careers, for a total of over 45 songs sampled. It has a slightly strange, mysterious sound to it, which pairs well with its origin story. And, whilst it's obviously not a trinket from an alternate reality, it is a well-made and impressive attempt at a hypothetical thirteenth Beatles record. It technically does feature input from all four members in the years that followed their split, so I suppose you could sort of call it a Beatles album.
The album remains uncredited, and is available to download for free.
The Worm's Heart - The Shins
Released in the same year as The Shins' previous record, The Worm's Heart is an experimental "flip" of their previously-released album, Heartworms. The rearrangement of the album title is emblematic of what to expect inside; The Worm's Heart is an exploration of opposites, and "the same, but different". The album contains the same track listing from the original album, but in reverse, and all of the songs have been re-recorded and altered in distinct ways. Essentially, the faster songs from Heartworms are slowed down, and the slow songs are sped up. Additionally, both the vocals and instrumentals have been warped in many instances, with a spacey reverb that gives this alternate version of the album a mysterious, mystical feel.
The result here is that some of my least favourite songs in Heartworms have become my favourites in The Worm's Heart. Some of the quieter and chilled out songs towards the end of the original now make for more bombastic openers for this alternative version of the album, and similarly some of the more energetic tracks actually really benefit from the extra breathing room and slower pace.
The Shins haven't released another album since, but their latest single does include a "flipped" version as the B-side that absolutely follows in the footsteps of The Worm's Heart. I hope it's a feature of their music that is here to stay, because I have very much enjoyed this experiment.
An excellent showcase of the Flipped effect is the song, Name For You, which either opens or closes the album, depending on which version you are listening to. Here's the original, and flipped version for your comparison.
Plastic Beach - Gorillaz
I suppose you could argue that all Gorillaz albums are concept albums due to the nature of the the band members being fictional and having their own backstories and comics, but I think Plastic Beach is by far the strongest contender for a true concept album on its own merit. All of the songs on the album hone in on nautical themes and the idea of plastic, wastage and the effects of mass consumerism on the natural environment. Repetition of lines like "The sea is radioactive" in the song, Superfast Jellyfish, a humorous mockery of aggressive advertising breakfast campaigns aimed at children, are emblematic of the themes at play here. "Because we left the taps running for a hundred years" is another line, this time from the album's closing track, Pirate Jet, which really sticks with me and again takes aim at wasteful attitudes, another theme of Plastic Beach.
The music itself in Plastic Beach is an immense ensemble, featuring contributions from the likes of Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, Mick Jones, Mos Def and more, tied together as always with the songwriting and performances of Damon Albarn. It's difficult to assign a genre to any of the Gorillaz catalogue, as it's a blend of hip hop, pop, electronic and orchestral influences and artists, and it's no different here. The result is an eclectic album that is unified by its theming rather than its sound, and the result is a varied yet enjoyable auditory journey.
The album cover is actually a photograph of a real model, with vinyl and deluxe versions of the album showcasing alternate shots of the model in various lighting conditions. There was even once a browser-based game where the player could fly around a virtual reconstruction of the island and learn more about the fictional setting. Gorillaz has always been as much of a visual art and storytelling project as it has been a musical project, thanks to the contributions and vision of Jamie Hewlett, the second half of the duo that conceived of the Gorillaz concept, and nowhere is this more fully realised than in Plastic Beach.
Here's a link to the excellent music video to the excellent Melancholy Hill song. It's a highlight of the album for sure, showcasing both the musical and artistic prowess of the guys behind Gorillaz, and the vision that they had for the album.
Everywhere At The End Of Time - The Caretaker
An alias of the ambient musician Leyland James Kirby, The Caretaker has released a series of haunting experimental albums that explore concepts such as amnesia, nostalgia and melancholia. Everywhere At The End Of Time in particular explores dementia, and it's actually comprised of six interlinked albums (fittingly titled STAGE 1 - 6) designed to be played one after the other in succession, with each one plunging deeper into the terrifying progression of the condition. The albums use samples from 1930s ballroom pop recordings, and although things start off dreamlike and serene in the first "stage", the crackly nostalgic waltzes through pleasant memories of years gone by start to become increasingly distorted, disjointed, disrupted and erratic. The descent is gradual, but by the final third of the piece all that's left are sudden and warped snippets of samples, with the majority of the sound now just an intimidating series of drones, hums and white noise. The entire piece as a whole sits at over six and a half hours in length, and you can listen to it here - if you're feeling brave enough. I will warn you though that this is not a pleasant experience. It's a heartbreakingly sad and scary musical interpretation of what I can only imagine must be one of the most awful conditions to live with. Kirby himself has assured his fans that he isn't suffering with dementia himself, but I think he's come as close as we're going to get in encapsulating its essence in audible form, or indeed any art form.
Oof. Bit of a downer to end on there there. I think it's important, though, to acknowledge and appreciate many kinds of art - even if it's art that isn't supposed to be enjoyed. I can wholeheartedly say that whilst I did not enjoy those Caretaker albums, they absolutely succeeded in evoking their intended response. And if that isn't art, then I don't know what is.
I guess I'd like to end on this general note - I love the idea that an album can be more than simply the sum of its track list. Digital consumption of music, the shuffle button and wacky user-curated playlists have all no doubt contributed to the reduction of people listening to full albums from start to finish these days, but I think that it's absolutely worth sitting through the entire thing every now and then to fully appreciate the vision of the creator(s). Go on, treat yourself - you deserve it.