Driven into the ground by the excess of 70s prog-rock (a grim reminder that God still hates us), the concept album has remained a much-maligned musical idea since Queensyrche decided it would be a good idea to release Operation: Mindcrime in 1988. Typically associated with the over-the-top theatrics of bands like Pink Floyd and Yes, the concept album’s roots go much deeper than Tales from Topographic Oceans; while the first true concept album is hard to nail down, it is sometimes proposed to have been Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, a collection of semi-autobiographical tales about Guthrie’s life as an Okie. While “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” doesn’t sound like a logical precursor to “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” it just might; by injecting a powerful narrative sensibility into his music, Guthrie, as well as highly conceptual artists like Pete Johnson and Marty Robbins, proved that music didn’t have to be a business based solely on singles, but that musicians could borrow from literature and film to create a complete package that, listened to front to back, conveyed an emotion or told a story as powerfully and succinctly as any other narrative medium.
Despite its endless mangling at the hands of modern-day conceptual enthusiasts like Coheed and Cambria (who straight-facedly release albums with titles like Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness) and Nine Inch Nails (who hid secret-message-filled USB keys around venues during shows leading up to the release of 2007’s Year Zero), the concept album still lives on in the hearts of nerdy indie kids with as many Cormac McCarthy books as Pavement records lining their basement apartment shelves. Look no further than Pitchfok darlings (everyone’s darlings, really) the Hold Steady, whose breakthrough sophomore record, Seperation Sunday, dealt with the exploits of Holly, a drug-addled born-again Christian prostitute, Charlemagne, a pimp, and Gideon, a skinhead. The record played to bar-rock conventions, conjuring the ghosts classic rock Gods past, but relied heavily on literary allusions, narrowing in on the good book itself, The Bible, for some pretty stirring imagery and metaphor. While Craig Finn, the band’s chief songwriter, certainly isn’t playing with the musical influence of 70s prog-rock, he’s certainly got the egg-headed lyricism down pat, resulting in a melding of slick rock ‘n’ roll style and well-read substance that has produced three of the best rock records of the last decade.
Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Polaris-nominated Ashtray Rock is another fine rock ‘n’ roll concept record, one which lays out its narrative of drunken, love-lorn teenagers with all the tenderness of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Coupled with a heightened thematic sensibility that sees characters grow and change over a whole record, as opposed to a single song, Plaskett toys with the best conventions of genuine teen angst in a very J.D. Salingeresque manner, rolling out his tale of two Halifax teens fighting over the same girl with all the innocence-lost faux-teenage-hopelessness of two post-Catcher Holden Caulfield’s. While Plaskett’s work is less directly literary, in that it doesn’t directly reference works outside of its own world, it still stands as a powerful modern example of storytelling in rock music.
Memoir, it seems, also has a place in the wild and crazy world of the concept record. Sure, most pop music, particularly that of the independent kind, falls under the heading of “memoir,” with (more often than not) tales of love lost and found a pretty consistent subject in all music since the dawn of man. There are artists, however, who have succeeded in taking memoir to a more conceptual place (not the Topographic Oceans). Ottawa’s the Acorn, who released Glory Hope Mountain at the end of 2007, are one such band. Based on the life story of songwriter Rolf Klausener’s mother, Gloria Esperanza Montoya, Glory is an exploration of Montoya’s life in Honduras, living with and eventually fleeing an abusive father, before immigrating to Canada with no money or knowledge of either French or English. It’s obviously not a memoir, per se, but the intensely personal story, coupled with the band’s compelling folk backing, is likely the most finely-developed and creative exploration of a single, otherwise unknown individual’s life in song.
The tag “concept record” has certainly become something of a kiss-ofdeath punchline, calling to mind elaborate stage sets and film adaptations starring Elton John as a kid with really huge shoes. Yet there will always remains artists as dedicated to traditional storytelling as tried-and-true chord progressions, hiding USB keys at their shows and publishing whole comic books dedicated to half-sides of their records. In a more subtle fashion, though, you will always find artists like Joel Plaskett and the Acorn, as eager to explore new narratives as to fumble with their guitar tone.