The term “concept album” makes me cringe, even though some of my favorite albums handily fit into that category. The granddaddy of them all, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably changed popular music forever and set the stage for the Beatles most creative period. More recent efforts, like the Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, suggest that the form is alive and well.
And yet the creation of the concept album also has the reek of good garage rock gone bad, of supreme self-indulgence of Nickelbackian proportions. Although we frequently identify the term with prog and art rock, some of the worst efforts have been the outgrowth of pop rock superstardom.
Consider the post-Peter Kriss effort Music from the Elder by KISS. It’s unlistenable, unless you want the smaltzy pleasure of deciphering the bizarre sci-fi storyline. Don’t even get me started on Styx’s Kilroy Was Here which included a stage show complete with masks for Dennis DeYoung and the gang (although, to its everlasting credit, it did give us “Mr. Roboto”, one of the weirdest moments in ’80s radio listening… right up there with “Rock Me Amadeus”).
And, though you wont like this, does anyone really listen to all four sides of Tommy without wearying of the angst ridden orchestra rock? Sure, the project that gave the world “Pinball Wizard” deserves all the acclaim it has since received. But the story of the alienated young white male (rock ‘n’ roll’s favorite protagonist) becoming a messiah? It makes a very high Ace Frehley fighting “the lords of darkness” sound appealing to me.
Music theorist Marianne Tatom Letts has found a near perfect angle to examine these issues with her book Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album: How to Disappear Completely. It’s a book that’s less a study of Radiohead, and their two least accessible albums, and more an exploration into the problem of the concept album itself. “What exactly is it?,” becomes the question that drives Letts study and her answers shed light both on the more obscure work of one of the truly great rock bands and on the nature of performance and the performer in the post-modern moment.
In her introduction, which doubles as a fine tour of the genres of prog and art rock, Letts examines the traditional definition of the concept album. Everything you would expect to be here is: thematic or narrative repetition, the recurrence of motives that appear in major and minor key at important transitional moments in the album’s progression, and the use of a protagonist(s) who becomes the narrative voice. She also makes clear what it is not; simply songs tied together by a theme. She humorously accents this by pointing out that an album entitled Today’s Country Christmas doesn’t qualify as a concept album, despite narrative continuity.
What is most interesting in her exposition is the idea that the concept album is “resistant” to categorization. In her view, the concept album remains consciously uninterpretable, or at least the artists who create it refuse to allow an easy interpretation. Here, it feels like to me that Letts is describing a “good” concept album rather than an abstract definition of a concept album. As she herself notes, plenty of artists are more than open about the higher and deeper meaning of their work.
In order to make these somewhat abstract points, Letts pursues a very close reading of both Kid A and Amnesiac, a song by song analysis that includes an examination of chord progression and vocal intonation as well as both album’s seemingly impenetrable lyrics. Letts goes further than most will want to go in this direction and the ability to read music is probably a necessity for getting the most out of this book.
She notes the ways that both of these albums rework the basic conceit of the concept album while also holding together thematic elements. The subtitle of her book is track four off of Kid A, an allusion to the complete disappearance, or maybe disintegration, of the narrator. Its almost as if Tommy had been killed somewhere around “The Acid Queen”.
Letts manages to tie her discussion, although only loosely, to Radiohead’s famous anti-capitalist gambit, allowing fans to set their own price for digital downloads of In Rainbows. Letts sees this as an artistic strategy that tries to renegotiate the relationship of performer and audience just as their music has often-resisted accessibility and easy categorization (although it may have actully lifted CD sales later the same year).
Not at all for the casual fan, Letts’ work contains meaningful insights into the state of the album as an art form as well as into Radiohead’s oeuvre. I must admit that reading the book actually reminded me of the first time I heard Kid A. I had the same realization that a lot was going on above my head and that it would require more time and patience than I have to sort it all out.
This is the kind of text that could likely transform a college-level music theory course for the better, prompting discussions about everything from the structure of modern rock music to the sometimes conflicted triangular relationship between performers, media and the masses. And, needless to say, it’s required reading for Radiohead cultists.