Three recent releases are notable examples of loose concept albums that come matched with artistic content: a short film, games and artwork. Such pairings make these records seem more indivisible than an album of collected songs with no unifying theme, from which iTunes users can easily pluck the singles and leave the rest to gather dust.
Woody Guthrie is often credited with producing the first concept album, the 1940 Dust Bowl Ballads, which loosely traced the plot of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. The Beatles inspired many an imitator with their loose concept record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Pink Floyd blew acid-loving hippies’ minds with The Dark Side of the Moon. Strict concept albums, such as The Decemberists’ rock opera The Hazards of Love, weave songs into a narrative, while more diffuse concept albums are often anchored by a particular mood, like the melancholy of Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours.
Arcade Fire’s highly anticipated third album, The Suburbs, captures the essence of growing up in the sprawling Canadian suburbs. The band collaborated with director Spike Jonze to write Scenes from the Suburbs, a thirty-minute short film that takes the album as a soundtrack. The film’s adult narrator, Kyle, reflects on a summer from his teenage years, in a dystopian world where suburbs wage violent war with one another. Kyle’s best friend Winter grows distant during the summer, weighed down by his stern war veteran brother’s decision to transfer him to a school in another suburb, which lies across a border protected by armed guards. The music and the film bounce off each other effortlessly: the album’s title track, which evokes the alternating joy and angst of being a suburban teen, syncs with the narrator’s reflections over home-movie scenes of fun; and the heavier rock of ‘Month of May’ moves the action from a raucous teen party to a disturbing confrontation between Kyle and Winter.
The Icelandic queen of quirky composition, Björk, chose a more high-tech path for her 2011 album Biophilia. It was released as a suite of iPad apps, which cluster to form a cosmos at your fingertips. Each song has its own star, which you can tap to unlock related content. The star for the single ‘Crystalline’, for example, contains a game of crystal collecting, the song’s score and an essay by musicologist Nikki Dibden on Björk’s songwriting methods. David Attenborough, in his introduction to the app suite, describes Biophilia as drawing nature, music and technology together. This would seem a lofty ambition for anyone but Björk, who has constantly pushed the natural and technological limits of music throughout her career.
Sufjan Stevens is famous for his concept albums based on US states, though he made it through only Michigan and Illinois before leaving the idea behind. With his 2010 album, The Age of Adz, Stevens instead created a more diffuse concept album. Inspired by the outsider artist Royal Robertson – a man obsessed with apocalypse and UFOs, who thought himself a prophet – the album traverses visionary themes and uses Robertson’s artwork on the cover. When Stevens toured the album, his songs were synced with animated clips of Robertson’s art, from which the band’s gaudy costumes also drew inspiration. I usually glean more insight from an album by playing it multiple times than seeing it performed, but in this case it took the band shimmying through twenty-five triumphant minutes of ‘Impossible Soul’, with Robertson’s art beaming down on them, for me to understand what Stevens had set out to achieve. I now rarely listen to a track from the album in isolation; I prefer to set aside the hour and fourteen minutes required to fully appreciate The Age of Adz.
I’m not an album purist who believes that the Long Player is the ultimate way to experience music. I’d even argue that certain forms of music, such as the thumping electro-pop of Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’, are best digested as singles. But it’s inspiring to see musicians such as Arcade Fire, Björk and Sufjan Stevens embrace technology and art to create music that is greater than the sum of its singles.