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Conceptually New

What makes a concept album a concept album?


Suddenly, the concept album is all the rage. In Rolling Stone's annual Hot List, the one featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt apparently surprised by a photographer before she'd had a chance to put on her clothes, one of the Hot Trends listed is the "return of the concept album." Among their examples: Bruce Springsteen's latest, The Rising, details various facets of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Manhattan. Tom Petty's new disc, The Last DJ, is about the downfall of modern radio. Peter Gabriel's UP is a meditation on death and grieving.

As it happens, Rolling Stone magazine was where I first discovered the, er, concept of the concept album. In their list of Top 100 Rock Albums in 1987, they, of course, named Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as the #1 album, noting in the write-up that it was a concept album. About what they didn't specify. (I later learned that originally the album was to be a rumination on growing up in Liverpool, but when the record company demanded singles, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were handed over, and everything changed.) I borrowed the CD from my sister, and thus a love/hate relationship with the concept album began...

The love aspect is easy for any Floyd fan to appreciate. Our boys have done their share of brilliant and groundbreaking concept albums, and not coincidentally all of their most acclaimed (and best-selling) records fall under this banner. Perhaps only Pete Townshend and his Who has done more for the concept album as a work of pop/rock art.

The hate stems not from listening to some of truly execrable albums out that just so happen to be concept albums (though I have done my share), but from the sheer amount of mental wrestling with the idea I have done since I first encountered the thought that a bunch of pop songs could be unified. The issue is one of definitions: What constitutes a concept album? And once you've called it that, what parameters apply?

The matter has been on my mind quite a bit lately because my favorite (active) group these days, Porcupine Tree, has just released In Absentia, a dark and enigmatic album that appears to be about a serial killer. The lyrics are frustratingly vague, however, which is refreshing from a musical sense (I've really just had enough of on-the-nose lyrics, personally), but maddening from a storytelling sense. There are holes you could force an aircraft carrier through, and the anal retentive in me simply has to know what is going on here. I can't seem to focus on anything else.

Musically, In Absentia is exquisite, easily among the best music I have heard all year, which is saying something in time that has seen excellent new albums from heavyweights like the aforementioned Springsteen, Petty, and Gabriel, as well as brilliant works by upstarts like Queens of the Stone Age and N.E.R.D. In Absentia's songs are varied but cohesive, daring but manage not to stray too far from what has made the band work in the past.

But lyrically, I have to admit near total ignorance. I have never been one to delve too deep into lyric interpretation, simply preferring to get the gist of things and settle for an impression. Failing that, I like to hear from the writers themselves. But possibly because of the sheer opacity of the words and the foreknowledge of what the album is about, I find myself stymied by my inability to make heads or tails of the goings-on--not to mention songwriter Steven Wilson's frustrating lack of commentary on the matter.

The main problem, though, stems not from my inability to figure out the plot, if indeed there is one. (It took me years to figure out what was going on in the middle section of The Wall and that never bothered me much). Rather, I keep stumbling over the song "The Sound of Muzak." The lyrics are nearly impossible for me to relate in any way to a serial killer. Instead, they sound like a bitter ex-disc jockey ranting about the idiocy and homogeneity of modern music.

However, the album seems to apparently shift narrative voices several times, and this could simply be the last thoughts of a victim, or, as one friend pointed out, the killer blaming the media. Unfortunately, none of these explanations work for me. If they are what Wilson intended, the connections are flimsy and run the risk of ruining a perfectly good concept album, the same way that the tacked-on ending of LA Confidential totally ruins the rest of the picture for me. At the moment, my current theory is that the song was squeezed onto the disc simply because it has the potential to be a good single. Self-referential sarcasm has a history of making for hits. See "Money for Nothing," "This Note's for You," etc. I keep hoping there's a better explanation.

What constitutes a concept album? The answer is that there is no answer.

I have come to the conclusion, after much wrestling, that what makes a concept album is simply the artist's (premeditated) intent. This is what separates thematically unified records like, I don't know, the Backstreet Boys' last album about Ooh-Girl romance and heartbreak from your Quadrophenia, which was clearly meant to be a connected work. There are two further subdivisions once the artist has decided to make a concept album: an album unified by a lyrical theme, and an album unified by a plot (the so-called "rock opera"). Dark Side of the Moon is the former, The Wall the latter. But you knew that.

From what I can discern, In Absentia appears to be a plotted album, and not just because it feels like The Wall. The songs flow in a particular order, and certain words and phrases seem to indicate that there is a specific sequence of events here, even if I can't quite figure out what they are. If, however, In Absentia turns out to be a thematic album, I might be able to let the matter go. Perhaps "The Sound of Muzak" is meant to be a reflection on the age-old question of whether the media reflect society, or vice versa. But I doubt it.

But jumping back to Sgt. Pepper for a moment, something interesting happens upon deeper examination of what the Beatles were trying to do. John Lennon told Playboy shortly before his death: "Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn't go anywhere. All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with this idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band; but it works 'cause we said it worked."

In other words, they called it a concept album, even if that term really didn't apply. It was a concept album because they say it is, the same way that an artist can stack cardboard boxes and call it "art."

Ringo Starr said in Musician (1982): "Sgt. Pepper was supposed to have been this complete musical montage with all the songs blending into each other. That idea went out the window two tracks in...."

So the real concept wasn't a lyrical one, but a musical one. Interesting... Under this logic, A Momentary Lapse of Reason could be considered a concept album, through the linking of music and the "river" motif that weaves in and out. (As an aside, a friend and I once tried to work out a film treatment for a A Momentary Lapse of Reason movie, stringing together a plot about a suicidal pilot, I think. It never went any further than some long conversations and a few scribbled pages though.) Unfortunately, although this goes along with my theory that a concept album is all about artist intent, it stretches the notion of a concept album extremely loose. If your concept is thematic linkage through music, wouldn't it just be better to come up with a new term? Should we confine Concept Albums to lyrics?

I have a feeling I know what Roger would say on the issue.

The answer is that there is no answer. And I find myself unable to come up with a satisfactory term for the concept album linked by musical theme. Even that phrase lacks nuance. I think it comes back to the futility of categorizing music. (Remember "alternative" bands? Bleh.) Steven Wilson actively disputes the categorization of his band in interviews, at least in part because of the albatross "progressive" label that the band has been saddled with. This is a struggle that Pink Floyd knows well. Because their music expanded beyond 4-minute pop songs, they were psychedelic or progressive or experimental. The labels could hardly do less justice to the music, though. When you hear the epiphany of "Shine On," or the thump of "Run Like Hell," do any of those terms do justice? Pete Townshend is fond of calling his songs "just pop records," as though it were somehow less worthy of appreciation because it doesn't rival Bach for complexity. If it did, wouldn't that wreck what the music was trying to do? Is it really necessary to use Haliaeetus leucocephalus when a simple "Bald Eagle" will do?

Still, people will try to categorize things, just as I will keep trying to figure out how "Muzak" fits with a bunch of songs about a serial killer, and Rolling Stone will keep putting half-naked girls on its cover. That's just the way things are.

Patrick Keller asks a lot of questions, doesn't he? Perhaps that's because he's a freelance writer and irregular contributor to Spare Bricks. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon with a fish named Stan, though Stan recently requested a trial separation.