Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Should Concept Albums Come With Explanations?

I was listening to All Hail West Texas by The Mountain Goats the other day when my eyes came to rest on the album's intriguing subtitle:

Leaning closer to the speakers, I tried to identify each item on that list within the lyrics of those fourteen songs. The motorcycle is obviously the one mentioned in Jenny ("900 cubic centimetres of raw, whining power"), and I guess the locked treatment facility is the one in Utah that Cyrus (one-half of The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton) gets sent to. Cyrus and his friend Jeff are two of the seven people; The Mess Inside features several references to one of the two houses.

Beyond that, though, I struggled. I fished out the inlay booklet in the hope that John Darnielle's liner notes would shed some light on the matter, but alas, the information contained therein mostly concerned itself with the recording process rather than with characters and stuff.

'What a shame!' I thought to myself. 'How my enjoyment of this crackly-assed LP would be enhanced with a little more info on its songs and the ways in which they tie together!' For a brief moment, I wished that artists like John Darnielle - artists who seemingly plan their albums in the same way TV detectives collate evidence, all corkboards and photographs and lengths of red string - would come down off their engimatic horses and just tell us the stories they're trying to tell us, preferably in a booklet that comes with every copy of the CD.

And then I decided that, actually, it would be A Bad Thing if every concept album came packaged with a comprehensive guide to its constituent songs. For one thing, sites like Genius and SongMeanings (and quite possibly The Album Wall) would lose their raison d'être, but more importantly...
  • Instant gratification isn't always the most satisfying. One of my favourite things about repeatedly listening to an album - particularly a concept album - is the way that everything gradually falls into place with each consecutive listen. The first time you hear it, it means nothing to you; on the second, third, and fourth spins, you maybe start to figure out the ideas behind a few individual tracks, but the bigger picture remains a mystery until listens five, six, seven, et cetera. More and more details reveal themselves each time. If, upon purchase, you're immediately able to whip out the liner notes and read a detailed explanation of each and every lyric, that slow-release, jigsaw-puzzle effect evaporates, and the instant gratification that you get instead is, I think, far less rewarding than listening, re-listening, and slowly figuring it all out for yourself

  • Personal interpretations make albums come alive. Sometimes, an album means more to you when you imprint your own meaning upon it. Whatever narratives John Darnielle was attempting to weave when he wrote All Hail West Texas, they're peanuts compared to the break-up that you were going through when you first heard the album, or the friendships you forged the year it came out, or the amazing places you've visited with Distant Stations in your headphones.Only last week, I argued that album reviews are most valuable when each one presents its own unique interpretation of the album in question. But different interpretations can't happen (not without opening up that big can of worms labelled 'Death of the Author', anyway) when the album's 'real' meaning is spelled out in black and white inside each CD case. By leaving their intentions at least somewhat ambiguous, songwriters give the HOT TAKES of their listeners room to breathe, thus enriching the album experience for all.

  • Explanation takes the emotional onus off the songs themselves. If you want to write a song that makes people feel sad, or a song that makes them think, or a song that makes them long for the past, or a song that makes them excited for the future...basically, if you want to write a song that inspires any sort of reaction at all, it's important to make sure that the song itself provokes that reaction. Writing some wishy-washy ballad and then mentioning in the liner notes that it's a heart-rending tribute to your late father and the complex relationship you had with him doesn't change the fact that the song - the actual thing we're paying attention to here - is a wishy-washy ballad that doesn't come close to making us feel what you want us to feel. Similarly, while a concept album doesn't have to make its overarching narrative clear right away (see my first point about delayed gratification), your lyrics should at least give listeners half a chance of piecing it all together. Explanatory liner notes, though potentially interesting, would be too easy to use as a crutch, a means of lazily conveying what your songs fail to convey, a means of excusing yourself from actually writing affecting, engaging music.
So yeah - upon reflection, I'm glad that John Darnielle didn't give away an exhaustive track-by-track album guide with each copy of All Hail West Texas. I'll work out who the rest of those seven people are in my own sweet time, and I'll feel all the better for the delay when I finally get there, dammit!

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