x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Concept albums often get lost in an echo chamber

Concept albums are rarely successful and often pretentious.

Will Coldplay’s concept album be a musical crime or will it still sound good in a stadium?
Will Coldplay’s concept album be a musical crime or will it still sound good in a stadium?

Of all the crimes in pop music, announcing that your next record will be a concept album is just about the most chilling a band can commit. Pop is about the immediate, three-minute thrill. The notion that it's somehow a good idea to bind together 12 songs creaking under the weight of a grandiloquent theme, featuring tracks that appear to last for years and have no tune - because "it's all about the story, man" - has been responsible for some of the worst records in history. But still bands appear to think the concept album is a chance to show off how interesting and important they are. And though producing such preposterous music might be the ultimate rock star folly, it hasn't put off Coldplay.

"It's about two like-minded outsiders who meet in a very difficult environment and therefore have a journey together," Chris Martin said of their new record on the BBC. "It's from the point of view of two people who are a bit lost... it's a concept album but it's supposed to be very personal within a big framework. Does that make sense?"

Er, not really. And that's the problem with concept albums. They rarely do. The Beatles are widely credited with inventing the, well, concept when they recorded Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. It was Paul McCartney's idea: an album where fictitious characters helmed by the bandleader Billy Shears would... well, no one was quite sure what exactly they would do. So, after recording the title track and With a Little Help from My Friends, The Beatles gave up even trying to make it all fit together. Unsurprisingly so; it's difficult enough to come up with classics such as Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and A Day in the Life, let alone then have to shoehorn them into some kind of theme.

Nevertheless, The Beatles had created a monster. And it found its natural home in the genre that didn't know where to stop: prog-rock. Fêted at the time, Rick Wakeman's band Yes were serial offenders, their florid 1973 double album Tales from the Topographic Oceans a quite ridiculous example of the pretentiousness of the concept album. The four (yes, only four) tracks on the record are supposed to symbolise truth, knowledge, culture and freedom, all based on the teachings of an Indian guru. It sold millions, but it's terrible. Even the bassist Chris Squire, the only band member remaining from the original line-up, was forced to admit that it "does go on a bit".

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention here that the third best-selling record of all time is indeed a concept album - although that doesn't in itself make it good. Pink Floyd's The Wall is the story of a rock star who becomes increasingly alienated from the world around him and ends up as a fascist dictator. And this was supposed to be sophisticated? Musically, apart from Another Brick in the Wall and Comfortably Numb (which Scissor Sisters later revived, arguably in more successful fashion), it's pretty forgettable stuff.

But even if The Wall sounds a little silly in 2010, there are at least a few concept albums that don't. The Who invented the rock opera with Tommy, the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a magnetic leader, and followed it with the mods-versus-rockers opus Quadrophenia. David Bowie made one of the best albums of the 1970s with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. In this century, Green Day's American Idiot deservedly won the punk band new fans and, in the end, transferred to Broadway. The reason was clear, though: the title track was memorably brilliant.

Supporters of the concept album - and there are many - argue that the derision meted out to such endeavours is just a sign of our time-poor obsession with immediacy. We no longer approach the album as a treat, to be listened to in one sitting. But did they listen to The Streets' best album, A Grand Don't Come f or Free? It did actually have a coherent(ish) and affecting story about losing £1,000, having a laugh on holiday and breaking up with a girlfriend. And then the concept was ruined by a ridiculous song about eventually finding the £1,000 down the back of the telly. Six years on, you're more likely just to head for Dry Your Eyes and leave it at that.

Elsewhere, The Decemberists are a wonderful band, but their least approachable record by far features the tales of a woman who falls in love with a shape-shifting forest dweller. And Tori Amos might have enjoyed being five different characters on 2007's American Doll Posse, but you couldn't help thinking if she'd just had one, and cut down the running time from a whopping 78 minutes, it might have had more impact.

So, Coldplay be warned. Although knowing them, it'll still sound great in a stadium.