Concept albums are hip again
The format, long maligned, starts a comeback as several bands write rock operas to tell thematic stories.
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 should?"
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 decades.
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 songwriting."
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 disappointed."
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.