Concept album masterpieces

Isolated examples of concept albums appear from the 1950s on, including efforts by Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, but the idea really took off with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles in 1967 — not surprising given how it was a time of great cultural and creative experimentation. Paralleling the rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1960s, the term “concept album” became imbued with the notion of artistic purpose.

Today, that notion of artistic purpose has become so pervasive that, whether consciously or unconsciously, artists routinely infuse concepts into their albums, or feel compelled to come up with a snappy response when a reviewer asks “so what is the CD about?” I want to share four examples of especially interesting, artistically successful concept albums that stand out from the crowd.

Hejira — Joni Mitchell (1976)

The word hejira derives from the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina to escape a hostile environment. Joni sings about highways, motel rooms, sleeping on “the strange pillows of my wanderlust.” There is a paradoxical yearning for love yet a compulsion to flee in search of something more that propels the music. “I left my man at a North Dakota junction,” she sings in Song for Sharon, yet the lure of the white wedding gown continues to beckon. “We’re only particles of change orbiting around the sun, but how can I have that point of view when I’m always bound and tied to someone?” (Hejira). There is a tension between domesticity and escape, pulling in opposite directions.

She identifies with a crow in flight, “black as the highway that’s leading me” (Black Crow). “We got high on travel” (A Strange Boy). She’s “porous with travel fever” (Hejira). She imagines a conversation about loss and disappointment with the pilot Amelia Earhart. Yet she understands that running is its own kind of prison: “You just picked up a hitcher, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway” (Coyote). So in Blue Motel Room she strikes a bargain with her paramour: “You lay down your sneaking around the town, honey, and I’ll lay down the highway.” But we (and she) know that ultimately she won’t make that kind of sacrifice, and indeed she ends the album with Refuge of the Roads. Even so, she leaves us with an image from a highway service station restroom where she sees a photo of the earth, “and you couldn’t see a city on that marbled bowling ball, or a forest or a highway or me least of all.” Ultimately, the tension between domesticity and escape vanishes and is inconsequential.

Peace Beyond Passion – MeShell Ndegeocello (1996)

Biblical references provide a framework for MeShell to reflect on passion and the search for right living, a peace that transcends passion, because in passion there is often pain: “I cry myself to sleep over you” (Stay); “for even a love that crowns may crucify” (A Tear and a Smile).

Three songs refer to specific books of the Bible. The Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes offers a reflection on the meaning of life and the best way to live, and Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart is presented as a prayer to “free my mind of my worldly wants and desires.” In Deuteronomy: Niggerman, she draws parallels between the enslavement of the Jews from the Book of Deuteronomy and the enslavement of Africans. She refers to the Book of Leviticus, with its series of rules and sexual restrictions, to highlight the incompatibility of gay-bashing with Christian love in Leviticus: Faggot.

Both The Way and Mary Magdalene are filled with religious references. The Way criticizes the hypocrisy of believers who “say you’re the way, the light so blinding,” yet don’t follow Christ’s example of love. Mary Magdalene is narrated from the perspective of someone who is in love with a chaste individual, with parallels between Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus (“Spend one night with me, satisfy me for free and I’ll love you endlessly”). But such passion, of course, goes unfulfilled.

Departing briefly from Christian references, God Shiva is a loving sutra to a god of “imminent love and transcendent reality.” The Hindu god Shiva is associated with destruction and transformation — not in a negative way, but as change in preparation for regeneration. Throughout the CD, the lyrics express a yearning to transcend the hypocrisy and cruel traps that we create for ourselves and others.

The Beekeeper – Tori Amos (2006)

Like MeShell, Tori’s lyrics are fueled by religious imagery and sexuality. The songs on The Beekeeper are grouped according to six categories representing various gardens, reminding us of the original Garden of Eden. She offers a different interpretation of the apple of temptation in a song she cleverly titles Original Sinsuality, refusing to accept the traditional Christian viewpoint that sexuality is evil. To dispel any doubts, there is also a photo of her with apples and cherries. (Joni uses the serpent and apple imagery in a different way on Hejira when she refers to New York City as “the apple of temptation” and she has “a diamond snake around my arm.”)

As with most of Tori’s works, the lyrics are complex because there are multiple layers of meaning and multiple concepts. Relationships and sex are expressed through the imagery of insects and plants in the garden: Martha’s Foolish Ginger, Sweet the Sting, Garlands, Sleeps with Butterflies. Stirred by her experience of almost losing her mother, death appears in the song titled The Beekeeper: “I’m the one who taps you on the shoulder when it’s your time.”

Being the daughter of a preacher, she has always been intensely interested in religious imagery, but on this CD she more fully explores the feminine aspect of the divine and its re-ascendancy after two thousand years of patriarchal suppression. Marys of the Sea is inspired by the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene (suppressed by the early Church) and the historical evidence that Mary was one of the original disciples (not a prostitute), who migrated north to preach Christ’s message in France. “I am piecing a potion to combat your poison” she sings in Barons of Suburbia, and “She [the female christ] is risen.” There will be a “mother of a mother revolution” (Mother Revolution), and “you need a soldier girl” (General Joy). Goodbye Pisces offers two levels of meaning. She’s saying goodbye to a lover who is like Mars, the “bull in a china shop” who will “smash it up to smithereens.” But it’s also a farewell to the destructive Age of Pisces (the current age) and the dawning of the more compassionate Age of Aquarius.

The CD is beautifully packaged with photos and imagery drawn from gardens, each song’s lyrics packed into hexagonal honeycombs. She complements her distinctive piano playing with the use of the organ throughout the CD, which further unifies the material. With Tori, sex is never far from the surface, and the double entendre in the name of that instrument is clearly intentional.

Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull (1972)

Presented as one continuous song — although actually a series of songs stitched together with musical transitions — Thick as a Brick loosely tells about the passage from childhood to maturity and the subsequent growing disillusionment with the world of the fathers. In this case, however, it’s the music rather than the lyrics that supplies the concept. The common rock instrumentation — guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards (supplemented by Ian Anderson’s signature flute playing) — is treated in an uncommon way. The arrangements reflect an orchestral sensibility, with an ear for texture and dynamics; even the drums are used melodically. Motives return in transformed states that recall Liszt’s technique of thematic transformation. Many other rock bands started experimenting with a symphonic approach to instrumentation around this time, but Thick as a Brick remains one of the few examples in popular music of instrumentation used to actually shape the structure of the music (as opposed to instrumentation used to simulate the sound of a symphony).

The album was originally packaged in a fictitious small town newspaper, The St. Cleve Chronicle, replete with fake advertisements, TV program listings, classified ads and articles mocking small town provincialism. The lead story concerns a child prodigy who writes an epic, grandiose poem titled “Thick as a Brick,” which Jethro Tull then puts to music. There is even a fake review of the album that ends with a less than rousing endorsement: “Not blatantly commercial, then, but a fine disc which, although possessing many faults should do well enough.” The faux newspaper thus becomes a meta-text to the lyrics, offering additional ironies and layers of meaning. Unfortunately, most of this richly humorous material is omitted in the re-packaging of the album as a CD.

Jethro Tull followed this CD with another concept album, A Passion Play, which explores the tension between the demonic, the human and the angelic. Although not as musically successful as its predecessor, it reminds us (along with the music of Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, MeShell Ndegeocello and many others) how rock ‘n roll — that supposedly atheistic, sinful style of music — is often deeply interested in religiosity.

For additional posts that provide interesting music lists, see About Music and This Site.

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