In the last year or so, I've run into a handful of modern day "concept" albums. I'm talking about albums that supposedly tell a story through the song lyrics and the album artwork. What I've found is that these acts don't want to just release another album; this is storytime. While that's noble and stuff, I really would like to imagine what the album is about instead of being told what it's about.
Here's a rundown:
Green Day, American Idiot
I like Green Day's music, especially Nimrod. While there are a number of great tracks on American Idiot, too many of them feel like small snapshots of a whole picture. Maybe that was the whole point, but I can't say that I enjoy listening to a whole song that's a full album. When the songs are broken up as concise songs, I can enjoy them in bits and pieces or in full.
Aimee Mann, The Forgotten Arm
This is a great example of an album that works separately as a collection of great songs and as a full story. Tracing the story of a boxer and his matches in and out of the ring, the lyrics come from a first-person perspective. Reading along with the images and lyrics, there is a good tale to be told. However, if you don't want to follow along, you can sit back and enjoy some of Mann's most straightforward and upbeat material in years.
The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute
I love the Mars Volta's debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium, but I can't say the same for Frances the Mute. Very unfocused overall with some really silly stuff, Frances the Mute isn't a sophomore slump, but it's not their best stuff. Both albums apparently have a lot of story to tell, so a single 80-minute CD is not enough. So, a limited edition storybook came out a while after De-Loused came out and a non-LP song came out on an EP to unlock the Frances the Mute story. While it may be interesting for people to know more of the stories, I really only have the patience for the story being told on the album itself.
Coheed and Cambria, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness
Coheed and Cambria's frontman Claudio Sanchez apparently has a big story to tell over all of the band's albums. Apparently, the story involving Coheed, Cambria, the Writer, a guillotine and other things is supposed to make sense in a Star Wars meets Dungeons and Dragons kind of way. As much am I fan of stuff like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I'm not a fan of this kind of storytelling on albums. Why? Because this stuff is impossible to follow. But I will say this, even though the music is the kind of stuff that technical metal wizards love, Coheed still has a lot of hooks in their songs. While "Welcome Home" sounds like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a number of tracks are pretty worthwhile. I wouldn't say this is the kind of stuff I'd want to always listen to, but it's not offensive.
Say Anything, . . . Is a Real Boy/Was a Real Boy
Max Bemis writes songs with a wider variety of influences than most modern emo bands. That's a great trait to have, but that doesn't mean he's for everybody. I like how his songs go places instead of wander around the good ol' confines of mall emo. Taking influences from '50s rock all the way to '70s pop, this stuff isn't the kind of stuff that will make people my age change their tune on mall emo. However, considering the playing field, Bemis has a lot more potential with the younger crowd than a lot of other bands.
That said, the "story" behind . . . Is a Real Boy is utterly pretentious. As the liner notes say, this album is about a guy named Max Bemis, who is the frontman of a band called Say Anything. He is "cursed" with powers, becomes a sort of messiah who has to confront "the man" with the "corniest song he's ever written." Folks, this is great when you're young and you have a lot of imagination. As a friendly reminder, we're not always young and full of imagination. The storyline of . . . Is a Real Boy is silly, but the songs themselves are not.
Dogme 95, The Reagle Beagle
Nick makes music that I have a hard time describing with simple reference points. Part storytelling, part performance art and usually catchy, stripped-down pop, there is some semblance of a story being told on The Reagle Beagle. A "fictional tale of a songwriter on a boat with Charles Darwin," certain Darwinisms come up here and there in the lyrics. Nick has talked about doing albums that follow a certain narrative for years, but here's his first one. The results are pretty good, but I have to admit I can't really get into the stuff that's inspired by prison chants. Overall, this stuff may baffle some people, but knowing Nick and seeing him live, he's not trying to put on some pretentious art show for a snotty art crowd.
I often wonder if artists do concept albums simply for the sake of talking about something else in the press. Regardless of whatever is said in the press, I often translate the music I'm hearing to make sense in my own life. The lyrics I'm hearing and the way they're delivered have an open-ended meaning for me. So, I don't feel totally comfortable when an artist tells me what's supposedly going on. I'd rather listen and enjoy the songs for what they are.