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By Brian Carpenter on September 27, 2009 9:20 PM
A Weird American Gothic Story - Part 1: The Concept Album
In an interview recently discussing his album Berlin, Lou Reed called the concept album "the kiss of death". Berlin was released in 1973. It was Lou Reed's third album, after the very successful Transformer, an upbeat glam-rock record. In comparison, Berlin was seen as a downer, a collection of songs about jealousy, anger, and loss centered around a couple of drug addicts, Jim and Caroline. The album received generally scathing reviews, most infamously from Rolling Stone, calling it "a disaster...his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou." In 2006, Reed revisited Berlin with a series of shows at St. Ann's warehouse. The live concert was filmed and edited with dramatic footage by Julian Schnabel and the result is one of the most emotionally charged concert films in recent memory. It's stunning, a huge production by Bob Ezrin and Hal Willner, with a children's choir, strings, brass, Antony and Sharon Jones singing backup vocals. So why did critics hate this record so much? Because it was heavily arranged? Because somehow big arrangements are contrary to good ol' rock and roll? Because it was a downer? Lou himself is mystified by it, if you compare the story to say, Hamlet, where everyone dies in the end. Or maybe it got the reception it did because it was a concept album. Does a concept album somehow imply to audiences that the songs can't stand up on their own?
I'll go on record here and say this. I'm not at all sure what the point of releasing an album is if there is no concept behind it. An album needs cohesion. Otherwise why not just release independent singles? Especially in this day and age where everything seems to be downloaded anyway. Of course, there are many different ways to provide cohesion between songs. Consistent instrumentation, consistent characters, consistent themes...and some combination of those or all of the above makes a concept.
The albums which have had the biggest impact on my life either emotionally, intellectually, or musically have all been conceptual. John Zorn's The Big Gundown, Tom Waits' The Black Rider, and Henry Threadgill's Too Much Sugar For A Dime all affected my musical mind in a big way, opening up doors in terms of sound, instrumentation, and writing. While not an album, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's opera Einstein on the Beach was a vastly ambitious concept which paid off. The opera refers to Einstein the historical figure and his breakthroughs through a series of 9 20-minute scenes with textual contributions by Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet with a long-standing collaboration with Wilson. Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call is another album which affected me in a big way and we know those songs are all about Polly Harvey. Funny that Nick Cave has often dismissed this album, too, in interviews: "I was making a big heroic melodrama out of a bog-standard rejection by a woman". Beat Circus alum Alec K. Redfearn released one of the most haunting and beautiful albums I've heard in years, The Blind Spot, a concept album dedicated to love ones lost to drug overdose. I'm not sure it's one of his best-selling albums but it's his best, in my mind. Dirty Projectors have been releasing a string of albums with heavily-loaded concepts behind them, including Rise Above a couple years back, an album of Black Flag covers half-remembered by leader Dave Longstreth. And I really enjoyed his previous album The Getty Address, a "glitch opera" (you have to hear it to understand what that means) about musician Don Henley (I still don't get that part).
There's a reason why musicians shy away from marking their albums as concept albums. How many people shrugged off Berlin without listening critically because they read it was about a couple of drug addicts and ended in a suicide? Or maybe they listened but if they knew the story beforehand, it was always there coloring their experience. And how many people were busy asking Dave about Black Flag after Rise Above was released without remarking on how completely unique the musical vision behind his new album was. Hell, you could barely even call his interpretations covers at all. I'm saying the concept often gets in the way of the songs. It's all about the songs, after all. The concepts are really just frameworks for songwriting and compositions. And if the songs don't hold up, the concept is meaningless.
One could argue that all albums are by their very nature concept albums. And as Eric Penna of Ketman wrote to me recently, long live the album. Who knows how long albums are going to be around for? And if albums are approaching extinction, I guess concept albums must be just about dead and gone, now, right?
By Brian Carpenter on September 16, 2009 8:00 PM
Boy From Black Mountain is here
The new Beat Circus album Boy From Black Mountain is now available in our online
STORE. Boy From Black Mountain is a
collection of personal songs about children, fatherhood, dreams, lost love,
lust, revenge, and redemption. The songs are inspired by songwriter Brian
Carpenter's son, stories handed down from his family in the rural Bible
Belt, and the Southern Gothic literature of Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner,
and Eudora Welty.