The Concept Album: The Good, the Bad, the Not So Much
How long has the concept album been around? If you look up the history it can be traced back to the 1930’s. Okay, maybe a stretch for what we think of as the modern concept album, but nevertheless, it can be said that by now we’ve had plenty of time to perfect it. For the modern concept album though, you will still find more misses than hits.
The reason? Primarily that the misses tend to come when the artist loses focus on the concept, seemingly in the middle of it all. It is as if from the beginning of the writing process they say, “Hey I just wrote two songs that have the same theme… let’s make a concept album!” A big “huzzah!” likely follows from the other band members and the artist begins down the road towards crafting the ultimate one-themed album that they hope will blow your mind by its inherent simplicity. But this is not to say some concept albums are not complex. Quite the contrary. In some instances the concept itself can be so abstract and taken to the extreme that it makes you wonder what the hell they were thinking in the first place. In the end the listener just gets lost in the mix of songs about metaphorical alien encounters or highly spiritual concepts.
Recently, two concept albums have hit the scene from two different bands with differing backgrounds in the rock world. You will find, however, that they end up with the same blunders down the confusing road of crafting the concept album.
First, the Counting Crows are back after a long and didn’t-they-break-up hiatus of six years. They didn’t break up, and over those years released a good live album, and oh yeah, got nominated for an academy award. The band has had some great success over their life span and has gained a huge fan base across the board. Some might say that they have yet to duplicate the mastery of their breakout album August and Everything After, but that hasn’t seemed to mattered to their critical and commercial success.
Now comes their concept album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. The concept is pretty simple. It deals with the craziness of Saturday nights out on the town drinking, partying, acting like a fool; and Sunday Mornings is the natural counter, like a remorseful hangover. The music as you can well guess follows suit with the lyrical themes. Saturday Nights is more buzz saw riffs and up beat blues-infused pop, whereas Sunday Mornings is more mellow, reserved and acoustic. Sounds like a great set up, and indeed it had me eager to find out what it would sound like, because surely a band as seasoned with previous rock-pop bluesy folk records as Counting Crows could pull it off. But, not so much.
The album becomes a victim of its own ambitious theme. Saturday is really a confusing mess of pop songs that lack sustenance, and really don’t stick to their supposed place in the Saturday night party. Not that the themes in a concept album have to be spot on with the overall idea, but when you put a song called “Sundays” on the side that is supposed to represent Saturday nights, it’s a little counter intuitive. The music does boast some decent efforts in songs like “Insignificant,” more of a straight forward, laid back pop rock song with a nice chord progression and some fun riffs. And “Los Angeles” is perhaps the most blues rocky song on the album, with a catchy chorus, though it is a little hard for most to relate to the woes of having rock star fame when lead singer Adam Duritz sings “If you see that movie star and me, and if you see my picture in a magazine… well, I’m just trying to make some sense out of me.”
Sunday is the better half of the album, but still remains foggy. “Washington Square” is a good folk song with primarily acoustic guitar, Duritz’ vulnerable voice, and a light touch from the piano. It also has some nice elements that are added by some light percussion and a gritty-toned harmonica.
But that song bleeds indistinctly into the next track “On Almost Any Sunday Morning,” which on its own is pretty good, but paired with the rest of the album just fades into the background. “Anyone But You” is a Ben Folds-like love song complete with “Bah bah bahs” at the end. Other highlights of the Sunday side of the album include the darker, more complex “Le Ballet D’Or” which seems to stand out the most from the rest of the album- the rest of the Sunday side probably should have followed this song’s tone.
But the whole of the album is an uneven sum of its shaky parts. Duritz revisits similar problems and flat out reuses lyrics from previous efforts, most notably in “When I Dream of Michelangelo” which Crows fans will remember as a line from “Angels of the Silences.” And it seems that the Crows got lost somewhere along the way with concentrating too hard on following the concept and either used it as a cop out or just really didn’t understand how to make it all work. The listener comes out somewhat annoyed and confused by Saturday night, and lacking from and indifferent to Sunday morning.
Similar focus-related problems arise in the complex and fractured release by Thrice- The Alchemy Index. The difference is, these guys stretched themselves and did so in a way that didn’t totally alienate the old fans and will undoubtedly bring in new ones. Thrice are a versatile heavy alt-rock band that have proven their original approach to rock music in the past with hugely popular efforts The Artist in the Ambulance and Vheissu.
With The Alchemy Index, the band themed four separate EPs around the four classic elements of Alchemy: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Volumes 1 and 2 were released last October 2007 and were the vastly different, and rightly so, Fire and Water.
Fire, as it might be obviously assumed, carried heavy rock songs that start in your face, dance around some reserved elements and end up just as powerful as they started. They are all well rounded tunes, though compared to Thrice’s previous heavy music, seem to fall short of the mark- granted they set the mark high, so short is still impressive. The first track “Firebreather” is a well-done hardcore ballad that begins with a deep chunk riff on an offset time signature, and ends with some epic singing that plays the song out. The disc is an enjoyable one, with another highlight being “Burn the Fleet,” a beautifully heavy track with some great guitar work and a chord progression that is definitely a departure for the band.
Water is a mostly digital disc that starts with the well-crafted “Digital Sea,” the album’s first single, likely due to its pleasing main progression that makes it a stand out, and is a dark pop departure for the band. The problem that arises with the disc is again in the concept. The digital music the band makes does sound bubbly and floating, which incurs that if water were music it might very well sound like this. However, when there are six tracks of the same floating and bubbles, they all just blend together. “Digital Sea” is exactly what it should have been, and perhaps the similar sounding “Open Water” should remain in tact, but the emotional lyrics of a song like “The Whaler” should have been more pronounced. Instead the song sounds like a remix of itself. There is an acoustic version of “The Whaler” that can be found on iTunes which is a beautiful and simple version of a great song lost in its own musical ambition to be “water-like.”
In April 2008 Thrice release Vol. 3 and 4- Air and Earth. Both of these EPs contain great songs that fit their themes well respectively, and on their own are standouts for the band. But the concept seemed to limit the band again, and the highlights get lost in the mix of the slightly more mediocre accompanying songs on the discs.
As for Air, the disc starts with the ambient and driving track “Broken Lungs.” It is an excellent track that is a progression for the band’s sound. It’s a more reserved version of the Thrice we know and the pace is set perfectly for the disc, for the album, and gives the song the ability to stand alone with sturdy legs. But so far as we have seen, just because the disc starts well, doesn’t mean it will end that way. What follows is more of the ethereal, more of the ambient, but without the direction or the correct pacing. Again, alone, the songs on this disc are unique, but they just do not serve the whole. The best example would be “A Song for Milly Michaelson” which is a brilliant, soft indie-rock song. It’s beautiful and reserved with a beating riff staggering on the same chord for most of the verses, and it rounds out with an excellent chorus. However, this is the clearest departure for the band on the whole album, and one is left to wonder where they were hoping this song would fit.
The album concludes with Earth. It’s a folk-rock disc with an emphasis on the rock. Again there is a great start to the disc with “Moving Mountains,” an upbeat song that plays well to the voice of vocalist Dustin Kensrue. Kensrue’s voice is gritty and low, which fits great for the crunchy screams he is known for, and fits just as well for the kind of down-to-earth (pun intended) music on this disc. But the instability of the previous discs is again present on the final volume. Five of the six tracks sound like they were recorded in a large bathroom with one mic in the middle. It’s not clear how the band connected “earthiness” with live recording on a single mic. The exception to that is “Come All You Weary,” which, aside from the problems this band has had with crafting a concept album, is perhaps the most fantastic song they have put out since their earlier, heavier days. This song has a perfect earthy-folk quality mixed with some heavy chords that hit straightforward in the chorus with the right combination of reserve and power. If you were to buy just one song off the album, without doubt, “Come All You Weary” would need to be it.
So what mark do these albums leave on the future of the concept album? It seems more of the same hits and misses as always. The differences we find are in mastery of style, and the similarities come with the difficulties in mastery of the concept. While the Counting Crows effort seems lost on all counts, never finding rhythm, balance, or a conceptual whole, there are still some remnants to be saved. As for Thrice, they certainly did a much better job with mastering and progressing on style; and while the concept seems irrelevant at times and tends to hinder the potential of the song writing, the band manages to come out with some gems that will define them for years to come.
As for the future of the concept album, there will no doubt be some monumental failures on the horizon. But if there’s one thing to learn from these albums, it’s that while going for a concept is good, the focus should still be the music and the individual song. The concept is what it is. Leave it at that.