2011: a year of concept albums
Throughout the years, concept albums usually run through an ebb and flow in popularity. While gaining steam in the 70’s with excellent story based records like The Who’s “Quadrophenia” and David Bowie’s string of Ziggy Stardust albums, the 1980’s saw disastrous rock operas like Styx’s “Killroy Was Here” and KISS’ “Music From ‘The Elder'” which made the mere notion of a central concept passé and kind of lame.
From the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s, concept albums fell by the wayside, becoming mainly reserved for prog-metal bands. Recently though, there has been a resurgence in storytelling through music and it has come in a few unlikely places.
The most obvious nod to rock operas of the past is Fucked Up’s “David Comes to Life.” A song cycle that takes place in four acts, the album follows the story of a light bulb factory worker named David who meets an activist named Veronica, circa late 70’s early 80’s. Love and tragedy ensue, but what makes “David Comes to Life” more than a mere throwback is its fourth wall breaking twist when David realizes he is being controlled by a narrator, Octavio St. Laurent. The two then subsequently duke it out for control over the story.
The motivation behind such a large and unusual project is mainly based on the idea that rock operas tend to be reserved for indulgent classic rock bands. Fucked Up’s Matador bio describes the album as “[breaking] the strict rules of punk and is precisely the reason why Fucked Up have presented this mammoth work.” To be fair, Hüsker Dü broke down that barrier with “Zen Arcade” in 1984, but “David Comes to Life” is a powerful piece of work regardless of whether or not its been done before – it’s also an easier story to follow than “Zen Arcade”‘s confused inner monologue.
At half the size of “David Comes to Life,” The Roots made their own rap opera with the unglamorous urban tale of “undun.” Telling the story of the fictional character Redford Stevens, “undun” runs in reverse, starting with Stevens’ inevitable flatline and moving back through the mourning rap of “Sleep” and the redemption seeking prayer, “Make My,” the latter featuring vocals by Big K.R.I.T.
As a whole, “undun” comes up a little short. Under 40 minutes, the story doesn’t get very far beyond the surface of the poverty stricken child turned drug dealer, with a four part requiem in its outro feeling undeserved. The songs still deliver though, and the give Black Thought a great arc for his existential lyrics.
Concept albums are not all about one linear story however. Two extremely different records emerged earlier this year that were collections of similiar stories forming a unified purpose: alternative rock veteran PJ Harvey’s war torn “Let England Shake,” and R&B newcomer The Weeknd’s “House of Balloons.”
PJ Harvey’s records all follow a unified theme one way or the other, but the thread is usually musical, not lyrical. “Let England Shake” follows that trend but takes it a step further. Aside from the composition and production, which is fairly sparse – her distorted past is replaced with shimmering, clean tone electric guitars, autoharp, and minimal percussion – the songs are also lyrically joined in their depiction of the horrors of war, using World War I and the Iraq War as touchstones.
While the album addresses a number of time periods, as a whole it feels entirely timeless, like an old book of protest songs. Some songs are calm and peaceful like the ghostly “Hanging in the Wire” and “England,” while others are more foreboding and cautionary like the urgent “Bitter Branches” and shellshocked “The Words That Maketh Murder.” In the aftermath of the Iraq occupation, “Let England Shake” felt less expected than it would have five years ago, but its removal from that era makes it all the more powerful.
Another item that was not expected at all in 2011 was a set of albums by a young and unknown Canandian prodigy. Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, dropped three fully formed mixtapes for free on his website, all of which received unanimous praise without the help of commercial press. While part two of the trilogy, “Thursday,” was decent albiet a bit heavy on the slow jams, and its concluding piece “Echoes of Silence,” released a few days before Christmas, breaking a little closer to the real world with its cover of “Dirty Diana,” The Weeknd’s debut, “House of Balloons,” remains the artist’s most chilling.
A perfect summation of the dark side of the late night lifestyle, “House of Balloons” is like a haze of alcohol fueled ambition and drugged out despair, set in the VIP lounge. Its opener, “High For This,” has the protagonist goading the listener to self medicate for the experience ahead. This is no “let’s get fucked up” jam though – the advice is more of a warning that you’re going to want to be numb to what is going to follow.
From there the listener is dropped in at several different moments of the night, from the slow motion coke party of “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls,” to the downward slant of “The Party & The After Party,” to the 3 a.m. nostalgia sob of “Coming Down.” Probably the most comforting track is the hangover of “The Morning,” that although finds the protagonist calling a cab for a girl he doesn’t know, the warmth of the song’s electric guitar hook over the line, “all that money, the money is the motive,” feels like there could be a light at the end of the tunnel and a call for change.
Unlike like famous concept albums of the past like “Tommy” and “2112,” there is little redemption found in 2011’s offering of themed records. “David Comes to Life” has its title character reliving the story at the conclusion, “undun” is doomed with death from its beginning, “Let England Shake” ends on a hymn to a dead friend, while all three Weeknd mixtapes dwell completely on being lost in a superficial world. Coldplay’s “Mylo Xyloto” follows a storyline that’s “based on a love story with a happy ending” – note that no reviews of the album even noticed. While the records mentioned here are bleak observations, the individual tragedies of these albums made for great art-storytelling in 2011, a year that never came up short with exciting music.