Monday, July 22, 2013

Concept Albums

I'm having a bit of a rest this week, but rather than neglect The Album Wall entirely, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you some blog posts from the past. Today's update was originally posted on my journal back in August '07:

Confession: I am a total concept album freak. If I so much as hear the same word in two songs on the same album, I'll set about looking up lyrics and drawing somewhat fanciful lines between them.

Okay, so we've got the ones that everybody knows are concepts - The Wall, Tommy, and so forth - but I'm talking more about the excitement you (well, I) draw from spotting recurring themes and ideas nestled in the records that didn't otherwise scream 'concept album'. Let's look at a few examples, shall we?

1) Attack Of The Grey Lantern

File:Mansun - Attack of the Grey Lantern.jpg

I've only recently got into Mansun. Apparently, when they were big, there was a big debate between their fans over whether or not ...Grey Lantern does, in fact, stow a concept. Yes, all the tracks flow together perfectly (I feel sorry for the Americans who had the whole thing minced up), but does it tell any kind of story? Well, one look at the lyrics should at least persuade the naysayers to reconsider their position. The title character from Dark Mavis pops up in several songs, as does the Stripper Vicar. Mansun's lyrics are pretty oblique, mind, so it's hard to work out exactly what's going on. Don't let the chorus of the hidden track, An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter ("The lyrics aren't supposed to mean that much/They're just a vehicle for a lovely voice"), put you off; apparently, lead singer Paul Draper has since admitted that the song was meant ironically.

2) Secrets of the Witching Hour

File:The Crimea - Secrets Of The Witching Hour.jpg

If you haven't heard of The Crimea, I would first advise you to hop over to their website (here) and download this album for free. Yes, free! I suffer from a serious case of CD scruples, so I had to get the physical version, but I'm sure the less ridiculous of you will happily take it for nothing, especially now that it has my "Seal of Approval". Download it now, I'll wait.

Now then. Secrets... is an altogether different beast to the Mansun album. Whereas the tracks of ...Grey Lantern all run into each other, some punchy with big choruses, some widescreen experiments, Davey and Co. give us 11 relatively compact pop songs-gone-bad (like a neurotic, self-loathing Beach Boys with more complex arrangements and a less camp Brian Molko doing vocals). They seem to document a) the breakup of the relationship between the narrator and his girl, and b) the end of the world. Whether these two are happening simultaneously, or if the latter is simply a metaphor for the former, or if it starts as a metaphor and then actually happens, or WHATEVER, the songs are certainly deeper than your average 3-minute pop song. Just to pick out some pivotal moments in what might be the plot: Bombay Sapphire Coma sees our protagonist regretting "disown[ing]" the girl, Don't Close Your Eyes On Me is a sort of "We ain't finished here yet" song, while Wierd [sic] is the epic final curtain (as a sidenote, it also contains the darkly brilliant line "Rapunzel above me, recieving chemotherapy/Throw down your- oh, sorry, how stupid of me").

3) Beautiful Freak

If you thought I was clutching at non-existent straws up 'til here, just wait 'til you've read this one. I reckon, right, that all Eels albums have at least an element of concept to them (most notably Electro-Shock Blues, which is pretty definitely about the death of his sister and mother). This one, however, requires a bit of imagination. I first imagined this a concept album when I noticed the similarity in theme between Beautiful Freak and  My Beloved Monster; both are about E's affection for a social outcast. Most of the other songs also deal with the narrator's OWN status as a bit of a pariah (Mental sees all of his peers describing him as such; Rags To Rags documents a down-on his luck loser's arduous struggle to the same exact spot). If you're like me, and willing to claw at whatever tiny links you're given, you might say that the borderline agoraphobia experienced in Not Ready Yet is caused by the events of Susan's House, or that the girl to whom the lyrics of Manchild are addressed is the titular "freak". Or you might not. Up to you.

4) Fevers & Mirrors

If the mock interview at the end of An Attempt To Tip The Scales is anything to go by, Conor Oberst - Mr. Bright Eyes himself - was deliberately using a lot of repeated imagery in the writing of this record, if not actually telling a story. Fevers, mirrors, scales, clocks and calendars all crop up multiple times, not to mention this enigmatic Arienette lady. Now, I have to admit, if there is a straight concept here, then I'm not entirely sure what it is. I've often considered that Arienette (who, remember, is made up, and yet "as real as you or I") may be a mental manifestation of Conor's "dream girl", who, even in his head, can make his life miserable one minute and bring him great joy the next (although, admittedly, the "great joy" to be seen in these ditties is sparse). At any rate, I'm going to leave the gaps in this one for you to fill in yourself, as I'm tired and I'm obviously unsure what I'm on about here.

5) Through The Windowpane

Last one, promise! I like to envisage this one as a sort of musical, if you will, featuring Guillemots main man Fyfe Dangerfield as our overly romantic protagonist. The album documents his (ultimately fruitless) attempts to woo his girl (a lot of girls in this list, ain't there?), including "leaving [his] best friend" (Redwings) and embarking on some big journey with her (Come Away With Me; not in a creepy rapist way, of course, more a romantic trip kinda way). Eventually, however, her constant rebuffs get to him, and he goes a bit mad (Sao Paulo). Bless. The whole "musical" idea works best if you imagine the curtain opening after the interval to reveal a lone, despondent-looking Fyfe, who bursts into Blue Would Still Be Blue, accompanied only by those weird boopy noises. Magic.

* * *

So those are my thoughts. If you're not a "lyrical trainspotter", you might just view all of this as the ramblings of a crackpot who ought to get a job. Hopefully, though, you'll have at least partially understood what I'm getting at, and you'll have some could-be concept albums of your own at the ready.

P.S. If anyone could explain to me the concept behind Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, that'd be great, 'cause I've got no idea.

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