We have a handy phrase for any album whose content is connected: we call it a concept album. But sometimes that umbrella term seems inadequate. Sometimes a so-called concept album is more than just separate ruminations on a single theme. There is something more cohesive happening, whether it be the creation or investigation of a single character, a plot unfolding, a portrait of a certain time and place being drawn, or just a certain feeling or sensation being evoked over and over. What follows are a few examples of just such albums, in no particular order.
Lou Reed — Berlin
While an undergrad at Syracuse, Reed studied creative writing with Delmore Schwartz. One of the tracks from 1968’s White Light/White Heat (“The Gift”) is just John Cale reading a short story of Reed’s over a fuzzy bass line. Reed went so far as to say one of his ambitions as an artist was to write the Great American Novel in album form. Enter 1973’s Berlin. This rock opera follows Jim and Caroline, a drug-addled and ultimately doomed couple who lose everything, including, in one of the stronger tracks — “The Kids” — their children. Don’t make any plans for after you’ve listened to this one. You will be so bummed out.
Guy Clark — My Favorite Picture of You
The cover art says it all. Clark’s wife of 40 years, Susannah, died in 2012 after a long battle with cancer, and this album, released a little over a year later, is his goodbye letter. While the songs are rooted in the particulars of their life together, Clark, like all great artists, is able to transcend the specifics of his subject and tap into greater truths. The third track, “Hell Bent on a Heartache,” reminds us that even in its best iterations, love will break your heart.
Emmylou Harris — The Ballad of Sally Rose
Inspired by her actual relationship with Gram Parsons, this 1985 release follows the life of the eponymous Emmylou-ish character as she copes with the tragic death of her lover. Throughout the album the end of one track bleeds into the next, muddying the ostensible separations, suggesting that this is a story she just has to get out, that she cannot help but tell.
The Beatles — Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
I know, I know. How obvious of me. But I feel compelled to give credit where credit is due. The story here is not so much in the content of the songs but in how they are framed. For all intents and purposes, John, Paul, George, and Ringo cease to exist for the 40-minute duration of Sgt. Pepper’s, and there’s a lesson there: sometimes you have to invent a narrator in order for the story to work (think Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse). Were it not for this 1967 LP, a list like this one might not even be possible.
Beck — Sea Change
Granted, there is no linear plot to be found here, and it is not commonly cited as a concept album, but can you listen to songs with titles like “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” “Lonesome Tears,” “Lost Cause,” and honestly say there’s not a common thread? This 2002 release was Beck’s first after breaking up with a longtime girlfriend, and the songs are simply soaked in that feeling we all get when newly alone: an amalgam of loss, sadness, relief, and maybe, if you’re looking for it, just the faintest bit of hope.
Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Dan the Automator — Deltron 3030
Our first SF entry. Complete with commercial interludes from Damon Albarn, Del’s best work to date is a speculative snapshot of the world about a thousand years from now. Corporations and aliens reign supreme, humans are enslaved, planet earth is overcrowded and dying, and we are constantly at war. Come on, Del. Not all of those things are going to happen.
Joni Mitchell — Both Sides Now
Jean-Luc Godard once said, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.” Save for two tracks, Mitchell’s 17th album is composed of jazz songs written by various others, and she uses these preexisting compositions to trace the arc of an entire relationship, from the tentative nervousness of early flirtation to the boundless optimism of togetherness to the eventual (inevitable?) coming apart, and beyond. If you’ve ever seen Love, Actually (and you have a pulse so of course you have), you’ve heard the title track.
Marvin Gaye — What’s Going On
Gaye spoke for an entire generation in these nine connected songs: a soldier returns from Vietnam, to the place he calls home, only to find hate, intolerance, and violence. His focus on the subject never wanes or wavers. The two albums preceding this one were of the Greatest Hits variety. It says something about Gaye as an artist that he did not just rest on his laurels.
The Who — Tommy
It is a testament to Pete Townshend that this opus has over the years been turned into an actual opera, an orchestral piece, a film, and a Broadway musical. And maybe somebody should novelize this thing. Here’s the setup: a British Army captain is presumed dead; his supposed widow gives birth to a son (Tommy); years later, the in-fact-alive Captain Walker returns home to find his wife with a new lover; Captain Walker murders the lover; to protect her son from the trauma he’s witnessed, Mrs. Walker brainwashes Tommy into believing he didn’t see or hear any of it, eventually turning him “deaf, dumb, and blind.” This is all in the first three tracks.
The Mountain Goats — Tallahassee
Back in 2002, future novelist and National Book Award nominee John Darnielle devoted his storytelling chops to “The Alpha Couple,” a husband and wife who just can’t seem to get it right. Hoping for a new beginning, they move into a house in the eponymous Florida capital, quickly see the new venue will do nothing to save them, and begin drinking themselves to death. Darnielle’s novel, Wolf in White Van, concerns a young man who survives shooting himself in the head at age 17 but comes away from the incident horribly disfigured. The persistent idea seems to be that we can live through and past trauma, but is that a good thing?