Concept Albums are hip again

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Fri Oct 1 07:46:13 CDT 2004

>From the Christian Science Monitor at:

Concept albums are hip again

The format, long maligned, starts a comeback as
several bands write rock operas to tell thematic

By Erik Spanberg | Correspondent of The Christian
Science Monitor 

A surprising mix of bands is attempting a fresh
revival of the concept album. The idea of creating
records in which each song formed part of an
overarching, themed narrative was fashionable among
artists such as David Bowie, Jethro Tull, and the Alan
Parsons Project in the 1970s. But the arrival of punk
consigned the likes of Yes's 1973 opus, "Tales of
Topographic Oceans," to the bargain bins of history. 
Oddly enough, it's a punk band that's among the raft
of new concept albums. Green Day, the punk outfit
renowned for cramming its sneering adolescent
viewpoint into three-minute pop anthems, has just
released "American Idiot," a rock opera about two
central characters, St. Jimmy and Jesus of Suburbia.

Other new concept albums include Camper Van
Beethoven's "New Roman Times," Elvis Costello's "The
Delivery Man," and Brian Wilson's "Smile," a
rejiggered version of an album Wilson conceived 37
years ago as a member of The Beach Boys but later
scrapped. Beyond those works, Aimee Mann is at work on
a themed album of her own, while Neil Young, British
hip-hop import The Streets, the Drive-By Truckers, and
Lou Reed have all released concept albums since 2001.

The albums represent, perhaps, a mini rebellion
against a musical era dominated by iPods and
single-song computer downloads. In a time when many
believe that listening to an entire album is passé,
these artists are rediscovering the novelty of telling
a long story over the course of a record.

"This might be a case of artists starting to ask
themselves what makes an album an interesting thing,"
says Alan Light, editor in chief at Tracks magazine.
"We're in a time when people are pulling down a song
here and a song there, and this might be a way for
some artists to explore the album as more than a
collection of individual songs."

The concept album, like so many other pop trends, was
popularized by the Beatles. Other groups, including
the Beach Boys, may have toyed with the notion of
unified albums earlier, but it wasn't until the Fab
Four's 1967 release of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts
Club Band" that others began to take notice.

Plenty of music fans engage in spirited, grandiloquent
discussions about whether "Sgt. Pepper" is, in fact, a
concept album at all. Whether it is may be up for
debate, but it would soon inspire works such as The
Who's "Tommy" (1969) and "Quadrophenia" (1973). Pink
Floyd, too, embraced epic musical journeys, cranking
out critical and commercial hits with meditations on
madness ("Dark Side of the Moon"), the government
("Animals"), and a rock star suffocating from his own
fame ("The Wall").

By the end of the 1970s, though, many failed attempts
- along with plenty of bloated and pretentious discs -
had turned the concept album into an industry joke,
and the trend seemed to vanish at about the same time
as black-light posters and pet rocks.

"Concept albums carry the risk of being pompous," says
Mr. Light. "You need to be careful. Are you just doing
something that takes itself far more seriously than it

Dreadful efforts by Kiss ("The Elder") and Styx
("Kilroy Was Here") in the early 1980s all but assured
the doom of the concept album. Until now, few themed
CDs have impacted pop culture during the past two

The fresh spate of concept albums tackle many topics,
but politics is an especially popular theme.

Political strife is almost impossible to ignore at the
moment, says Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven.
The folk-rock band's new record, their first in 15
years, tells the story of a young Texan man who
enlists in the Army and goes to war. "We really
started writing the material in late 2002," Segel says
in an e-mail interview. "At that time things in the
world were really starting to go haywire and I'm
certain that that gets into our heads more than
lightly. It can't help but be filtered out through

Similar themes inspired the new Green Day collection,
an indictment of American military might. The decision
to make a concept album was both an evolution and a
calculation, says Rob Cavallo, senior vice president
of A&R at Warner Bros. Records.

Green Day, like many other rock acts, had long
marveled over the Beatles' progression from
straight-ahead albums built on singles ("Please Please
Me") to more cohesive, thoughtful works ("The White
Album" and "Sgt. Pepper"). When band leader Billie Joe
Armstrong came up with the title track "American
Idiot," Mr. Cavallo encouraged him to expand on the
ideas of the song.

"I told them it was a platform to do some interesting
things," he recalls. "And that sort of started it. If
you think about it, this is a natural progression. Ten
years ago, Green Day was singing about a young man's
struggle to find himself at 21. Ten years later, at
31, it's only natural to ask, how did I get here?"

Not all of the new CDs are political.

Elvis Costello, who enjoys eschewing all forms of pop
convention, does so again with the brooding "The
Delivery Man," a rock-country amalgamation drenched in
Mississippi mud and a less-than-linear tale of a
troubled man named Abel and the women around him.

For Brian Wilson, "Smile," an album that's largely an
ode to Americana, was the culmination of many
frustrating starts and stops. Several songs from the
sessions were released by the Beach Boys, but "Smile"
became widely known as the most famous unreleased rock
album in memory. Taking shards of the earlier efforts
and assembling a new band of musicians, Wilson finally
finished the album this year.

It is a complex work that will surprise many fans,
Light says: "It's an art piece. If you're expecting 10
songs like 'Good Vibrations,' you're going to be

For now, it remains to be seen whether more bands will
attempt concept albums. For many, the stigma of the
format remains a deterrent.

Segel, for one, has few concerns about his band's
audacious endeavor.

"If [making a concept album] bothers people, tough. In
a way, all records are put together as a collection of
songs that fit together somehow," he says.

-Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!

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