As we gear up to head into the studio to record the next album, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about albums. Everybody knows that the album as we generally understand it — a coherent collection of songs by an artist — is pretty much dwindled to a niche preoccupation. Bands like Radiohead get some press for their dedication to crafting albums, and theirs are albums that are united mostly by atmosphere or “sound.” You recognize a song off of “Kid A” as being different from a song on “OK Computer” as different from a song on “The King of Limbs.”
The alternative is to make a couple of singles and wrap them up in filler and call it an album. This practice was widespread, and totally never fooled anybody, so that’s why you see digital single sales/downloads FAR outstripping the pace of album sales/downloads. Nobody even needs to bother making albums anymore if they are a big deal pop star and don’t want to.
In the last few years, I’ve noticed a lot more concept albums coming out and getting attention. A concept album is one united by a single topic or narrative that binds all of the songs together. This is, of course, basically an opera. “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is probably the most famous early example everybody points to. It’s the Beatles, pretending to be a different band, playing a show. Not much of a concept, but you can’t expect everything to be perfect right out of the gate. The concept album was huge in the 1970s, with David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and tons others releasing often several of them.
But in the last few years, we’ve seen “Hazards of Love” by The Decemberists, “Hadestown” (which is stunning) by Anais Mitchell, “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes” about a messiah who keeps getting distracted from saving the world by meeting pretty girls, NIN’s “Year Zero,” stuff by Coheed & Cambria, Mastodon, Green Day, and Aimee Mann’s wonderful “The Forgotten Arm.”
I think the reason why we’re seeing this, and maybe one of the reasons why I even tackled a concept album, is that if you want listeners to experience your work in context, with the dominance of the singles market, you have to give it an explicit context. Bon Iver basically did this with “…for emma forever ago,” which wasn’t strictly a concept album, but is always described alongside it’s context (“Bad breakup, dude goes to cabin, makes sad record.”).
Me, I like it. Between their concept work and song cycles (Crane Wife, parts 1-3), The Decemberists have become one of my favorite bands. It gives people a reason to keep buying albums, and in a way, with the art form beset by decline, it has fostered invention. I can only hope that someday the John Henry project we’re working on now might be mentioned in the same breath with some of these wonderful, wonderful albums.