The return of concept album

Concept albums used to be the most hideous emblem of conceit in rock bands, so why are they now acceptable? By Fiona Sturges

It is one of the most maligned inventions in the history of music; the greatest signifier of rock star hubris. The very mention of it is likely to provoke snorts of derision among the most open-minded rock fans, conjuring images of quadruple-gatefold album sleeves, songs that go on for days and shaggy-haired rockers prattling on about unicorns, goblins and dystopian futures. I am, of course, talking about the concept album. But if you thought this absurd creation had gone out with capes and dry ice, think again, because a generation of musicians is doing its damnedest to bring it back to life.

Following a scattering of concept albums last year – including Jim Noir's eponymous LP told from the perspective of an astronaut looking down from space, and Neon Neon's Stainless Style, about the rise and fall of the car pioneer John DeLorean – rock's big guns are being steadily seduced by its unwieldy charms.

Mastodon, The Decemberists and Neil Hannon (as The Duckworth Lewis Method) have all released concept albums this year. Muse recently offered up The Resistance, a quasi-concept piece referencing Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that shoehorns a love story into a futuristic world of political and ideological subjugation. Next week sees the release of Embryonic, the new Flaming Lips album arranged around the zodiac.

It certainly seems surprising in an era where consumers have broadly pitched themselves in the middle of road and musical ambition is, more often that not, greeted with suspicion. But, then again, let's consider the bands in question. Muse are stadium rock giants known for their cod-operatic preposterousness and for whom song titles such as "Exogenesis: Symphony" prompt no flushes of self-consciousness whatsoever. And then there's the Flaming Lips, a band who once orchestrated a four-CD album that was designed to be played simultaneously. For these bands, vaulting ambition is all in a day's work.

The concept album was originally defined as a long-player where the songs were based on one dramatic idea – but the term is subjective. There is a difference between an album based on a theme and one defined by a narrative. No wonder, then, that the identity of the first concept LP depends on who you ask. The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is widely considered to be among the first. What's clear is that before prog rockers such as Yes and Jethro Tull hijacked the format in the Seventies, concept albums were straightforward affairs. One of the earliest narrative albums may be Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads of 1940, a collection of songs about the dust storms that ravaged the Great Plains in the Thirties. Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, released in 1955, was a cycle of ballads telling the story of a man whose lover had left him and his reflections in the early hours of the morning.

Brian Wilson certainly brought big ideas to the Beach Boys. Pet Sounds in 1966 brought new depth and complex arrangements to the themes of love and loneliness. It is regarded as one of the great concept albums, even though it wasn't intended as a narrative. Wilson had even bigger plans; the follow-up, Smile, was meant to be his "teenage symphony to God". But it all proved too much and, after trying to burn down his studio, Wilson retired to his bed, leaving the project languishing in a vault for 40 years.

More conceptual efforts followed in the Sixties, with Frank Zappa, The Kinks and Pretty Things' each releasing concept albums. By the end of the decade the format had even developed a sub-genre – the rock opera – typified by The Who's Tommy and, in the Seventies, Quadrophenia. Pink Floyd later embraced rock-opera with The Wall, by which time the concept album had reached fantastical heights of ambition as its creators turned to literature and legend for inspiration, and sought to bring classical music into their compositions. This new school of conceptualists came with outlandish outfits, impenetrable lyrics, choirs, orchestras and great gusts of dry ice. Chief perpetrators were Yes, whose Tales From Topographic Oceans was the apogee of prog excess and came with a concept – something to do with Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi – that even the fans struggled to unravel.

There are more redeeming examples, such as Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which drew on folklore, the Bible and classic literature as it told the tale of a New York hustler. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, on which David Bowie became an androgynous alien rock star, is a classic.

By the Eighties, concept albums seemed to have been consigned to the bargain bucket of rock extravagance. It's perhaps no coincidence that they fell out of favour at the same time as the emergence of MTV, which was all about the chart-busting single – not albums. Pop hooks and slick visuals were in; grand conceits were out.

Throughout the Nineties, concept albums remained thin on the ground, although there were exceptions such as Elvis Costello's The Juliet Letters and Liz Phair's Exile In Guyville, the latter a response to the Stones' Exile on Main St. Since then we've seen The Streets aka Mike Skinner's 2004 album A Grand Don't Come For Free, centred on a narrative about the loss of £1,000, and Green Day's epic 17-track, three-act, post 9/11 rock opera American Idiot, one of their biggest-selling efforts yet.

The concept album clearly has its limitations, not least the possibility that no one will get what it's all about, and perhaps this accounts for its dwindling popularity. For all its creative freedoms, it offers an unwieldy method of showing off your musical prowess. So why are musicians suddenly trying to rehabilitate this totem of rock star folly?

One theory is it's a result of the changing ways we are listening to music. Gone are the days when you had to buy a whole album to hear the one song you actually wanted. With digital downloading, fans can pick the tracks they want and ignore the ones they don't. When many of us listen to our iPods on shuffle, there is dogged sense in making albums that are difficult to listen to in three-minute bursts. It's possible that artists are trying to breathe new life into a dying format and discovering the art of storytelling in the process.

Part of our cynicism when it comes to concept albums probably lies in a collective recoiling at the notion of pop stars – by definition shallow, fly-by-night types – trying to be clever. A similar type of snobbery afflicts the music industry that, notorious for underestimating its consumers, assumes short attention spans among music listeners and shies away from complex formats and ideas.

So, perhaps it's time to stop frowning on musicians aiming a little higher than the three-minute pop song. After all, what would become of our great novelists if they were confined to producing novellas, or film-makers reduced to churning out shorts? Why shouldn't ambition be rewarded, not thwarted?

Muse's 'The Resistance' (Warners) is out now. The Flaming Lips' 'Embryonic' (Warners) is released on 12 October

Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower