What a concept: The concept of concept albums

If you have ever listened to a movie soundtrack, Christmas album or compilation of an artist’s greatest hits, you have listened to a conceptual album. Though vague, a conceptual album is any album whose songs have greater purpose when listened to together, rather than separately.

Folk singer, Woody Guthrie, is often credited for being the pioneer of conceptual albums with “Dust Bowl Ballads,” released in 1940. The album discusses Guthrie’s experiences while living in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, documenting the economic hardships that prompted thousands of migrant workers to relocate to California. Though Guthrie’s songs can be listened to and enjoyed by themselves, when listened to cohesively, they narrate a tragic tale that is more effectively demonstrated to the audience.

Following its introduction to the music scene, other popular artists such as The Beatles,
David Bowie and Pink Floyd also started producing more conceptual albums. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” allowed The Beatles to experiment with their sound as a fictional band, producing some of the most notable songs of their career, including “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life.” David Bowie was able to invent an alter-ego by the name of Ziggy Stardust on “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” eventually becoming interchangeable with Bowie and his already androgynous personality. “The Wall” by Pink Floyd chronicles the tribulations of death, abuse, divorce and isolation endured by a fictional combination of Roger Waters and former member, Syd Barrett, by the name of Pink.

Once MTV made its television debut in 1981, conceptual albums became less common, as singles were valued more over the album as a whole. The purpose of an album’s singles are to promote the release of the album, provide audiences with what to expect from the rest of the album and attract a broader audience through radio airplay. Despite this, conceptual albums have recently made yet another comeback through artists such as Father John Misty, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and The Lemon Twigs.

Singer-songwriter, Josh Tillman, has released several conceptual albums as his pseudonym, Father John Misty. “I Love You, Honeybear” follows Tillman and his wife, Emma, throughout their picturesque love story. Songs such as “I Went to the Story One Day” tells the true story in which they first met in the parking lot of a local store, while “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” shares their first day exploring Los Angeles together, where they both still reside. Tillman’s following album, “Pure Comedy,” was also conceptual and much more obviously so. “Pure Comedy” is a satirical commentary focused on modern politics, technology, fame and the overall human experience. Tillman discusses the flaws of humanity that begin with birth and continues until mankind is on their deathbed, victim of their own demise. Earlier this year, Tillman released “God’s Favorite Customer,” his third conceptual album that describes his recent experience living in a hotel in New York while he struggled with his marriage and “life blew up.” Tillman classifies this album as a “heartache album,” evident by songs such as “Just Dumb Enough to Try” and “Please Don’t Die.”

The “concept album to end all concepts” was released by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard last year. “Murder of the Universe” is a narrative divided into three chapters, each documenting a different battle between two fictional characters that result in death, commenting on the horrors of modern society. The first chapter, “The Tale of the Altered Beast,” tells the story of a human that encounters an “altered beast,” who then alters the human into a beast as well, before dying from insanity. The second chapter, “The Lord of Lightning vs. Balrog,” switches focus to two entities that symbolize light and dark, in which the darkness, Balrog, harasses the townspeople until the Lord of Lightning defeats him and flees the town. The third and final chapter, “Han-Tyumi & The Murder of the Universe,” takes place in a digital world inhabited by a cyborg whose only wish is to accomplish the impossible: die. In order to do so, the cyborg creates a monster whose purpose is to help him achieve death, though when the plan fails, the situation worsens and the entire universe is destroyed.

One of the most recent examples of a successful conceptual album is “Go to School,” released last month by The Lemon Twigs, a youthful brother duo currently redefining the indie music scene. Despite their debut album only being released in 2016, the indie rockers have already toured alongside acts including Sunflower Bean, Phoenix, Mac Demarco and Arctic Monkeys. Their sophomore album, “Go to School,” is a musical about a monkey raised by human parents who faces torment in school due to his false beliefs that he is also human. Though a peculiar concept, the album has an underlying message much deeper than that which is shown on the surface, while portraying The Lemon Twigs’ ability to produce a polished version of rock opera that is a refreshing addition to modern music.

As with any genre of music, conceptual albums have an important role in music history and have undoubtedly retained their relevance among audiences. Next time you listen to an album, conceptual or otherwise, The Lutrinae suggests putting the songs into perspective as a collection of thoughts, sounds and ideas that might provide a fresh perspective or interest in the music.

Music Maven is a weekly column consisting of album and concert reviews, playlists, and announcements of upcoming shows to keep readers informed of their local music scene.

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