By Hannah Wisterman
There’s nothing quite like diving into an album and letting yourself stew in it for a while. To enjoy a record from beginning to end is to appreciate an artist’s full and complete vision, and to get inside their psyche, in a way. But sometimes this can go even further. Sometimes an album doesn’t just show how an artist has been thinking and feeling in the past couple years. Sometimes it’ll zero in on a thing—an experience, a theme, or a narrative. These are what we call concept albums.
You’ve probably heard one before and not even realized it. Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which everyone and their mother rightly lost their minds over, is by all means a concept album. So is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Green Day’s American Idiot, Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Concept albums crop up in every genre, from bands that are hardly known to ones that are household names. They’re a natural result of the creative process; eventually a theme will get stuck in an artist’s head that they want to thoroughly explore, or they’ll bear witness to some moving event, or they’ll have an existential epiphany that they need to process and communicate. Sometimes what a musician wants to say goes beyond a three-minute, five-minute, or seven-minute track. Sometimes something will occupy so much creative space in their head it demands a whole album.
Take, for example, the extraordinary discography of The Dear Hunter. The band has been active for about 12 years and in that time has released seven albums and 13 EPs, as well as two live albums. Five of their full-lengths (titled Acts I-V, accordingly) follow one story, that of a young man, from his birth, to his first love, to his experience with his war, and on and on. Most of the albums clock in at around an hour and 15 minutes, each one telling complex tales with multiple characters and musical motifs. Nine of The Dear Hunter’s EPs are concepts as well, dedicated to different colors; the tracks on them interpret what the colors communicate and mean to the band. The EPs were combined into one album, The Color Spectrum, which comes to almost two and a half hours long. The creative dedication behind that immense amount of work is just extreme. In many ways, The Dear Hunter’s work is a masterclass in what concept albums can be: enchanting stories that, by being so focused in their subject, necessitate complex, compelling composition.
Not all concept albums need to have that sort of strict dedication to a story. Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik’s composition Skuggsjá could be considered a concept album, centering around the culture and history of Norway. It’s not at all a step-by-step narrative, but still has a central theme and very cohesive musical elements to go with it. In the same vein, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible explores life and personal control in the television era. Sufjan Stevens made two albums, Michigan and Illinois, entirely about things and experiences relating to those states. A concept album just needs that: a concept. Even some breakup albums are focused enough to be considered concepts. Don’t let the idea of a fully-fledged story intimidate you—the well’s much deeper than that.
There’s a lot of scare-talk today about the album being a dying art, and that no one listens to tracks as part of a larger composition anymore. Frankly, I have a hard time buying it, largely because concept albums still exist, and will continue to exist as long as artists keep thinking like artists. Audiences want immersion. Audiences want an experience. Concept albums are like movies for your ears, and whether or not you realize it, people love that. For an artist to take you into a space completely removed from the realm of the relatable pop hit, to show you a holistic experience using sound alone—that’s magic. And I don’t think it’s going anywhere.