The heyday of the concept album is long past, and I miss it greatly. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, such themed albums were all the rage, artists working from a large palette, able to choose and sequence their songs and have input into cover design and liner notes, something unheard of in the music business before that time.
It's likely that the first person to be given such artistic control was a young twenty-something Brian Wilson, who used it to full effect on 1966's Pet Sounds, selecting songs, commanding a studio full of the best L.A. session musicians, and overseeing the entire concept of the record. It isn't that such concept albums did not persist after the demise of vinyl, but it became more difficult to pull off. Compact discs offered less room for artistic choice. But the whole idea of the album is falling by the wayside with digital music. Sure, there may still be album releases, but many of these albums are no more than collections of songs, musicians well aware that the individual song is all that matters, that consumers will generally download a song that "pops" for them in the first 30 seconds, that patient listening to a whole planned sequence of songs, whether organized around a theme or simply organized for effect and mood, is not rewarded. What's happening is a dumming down of artistic expression, a shrinking palette, and a focus on a song rather than a body of work.
This concept of an album as a work of art is becoming so foreign to some that it helps to turn back the clock and use an example, and I choose one of my favorite concept albums, The Kinks' 1969 release of Arthur, or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Arthur is the kind of album that folks who download might zip through, listening to a minute or two of each song, and then downloading a couple that are immediately memorable, like "Victoria," or "Australia," or the beautiful "Shangri-La," and yet completely miss the story told in the other songs or the narrative that streams throughout.
Arthur was a collaboration between Kinks frontman Ray Davies and novelist and playwright Juliana Mitchell, a story and soundtrack of sorts originally planned as a TV musical drama --- only the budget was pulled. It tells the story of a working class man's love of and then disillusionment with Britain, his flight to Australia, and his ultimate regrets at a life of innocence lost. In the end, Arthur's questions about life are best put by Mitchell as "What's it all about then? Is this what I've lived for (a suburban home, car, job)? It's been a good life, hasn't it? Well, hasn't it?" You're left with that gnawing sense that there must be more, that Arthur somehow missed the point of life, the real meaning.
The songs tell a cohesive story. "Victoria" kicks off the album in a rocking way, Arthur paying tribute to the "land that I love," the "land of hope and gloria/ Land of my Victoria." In "Yes Sir, No Sir," he goes to war, ready to do his duty, and yet despite his sacrifice realizes that he can never rise above his class, will always be on the outside: "So you think you've got ambition/ Stop your dreaming and your idle wishing/ You're outside and their ain't no admission/ To our play." Though Arthur survives, many others don't, the mother in "Some Mother's Son" waiting for a son "who ain't coming home today." And yet it's not all dark, "Drivin'" providing a light note, with Arthur packing the boys in the car for a drive, telling then to "Drop all your work/ Leave it all behind/ Forget all your problems/ And get in my car/ And take a drive with me."
"Australia," which almost turns psychedelic at the end, is a rocking end to the first side, sounding like a promo for utopia, promising that "everyone walks around with a perpetual smile on their face in Australia," a place where "you get what you work for" and there's "no class distinction" and "we'll surf like they do in the U.S.A." Flip the album and you realize that Australia is no "Shangri-La," that when you've got what you thought you needed to be happy, you're really "too scared to think about how insecure you are/ Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-la, Shangri-la." Lurking underneath the upbeat musical tone of the song is a fair amount of angst, of latent anger at how life's turned out.
Finally, an old, gray-haired Arthur looks back on his life with some nostalgia and regret, as in "Young and Innocent Days," saying: "I see the lines across your face/ Time has gone and nothing ever can replace/ Those great, so great/ Young and innocent days." The title cut brings a summary conclusion to the story:
Arthur was born just a plain simple man
In a plain simple working class position
Though the world was hard and its ways were set
He was young and he had so much ambition
All the way he was overtaken
By the people who make the big decisions
But he tried and he tried for a better life
And a way to improve his own condition
Arthur we like you and want to help you
Somebody loves you don't you know it
How is your life and your Shangri-la
And your long lost land of Hallelujah
And your hope and glory has passed you by
Can't you see what the world is doing to ya
And now we see your children
Sailing off in the setting sun
To a new horizon
Where there's plenty for everyone
Arthur, could be
That the world was wrong
Empire, status, position --- could it be that the world was wrong? The album asks a great question, planting the truth that there must be something more to life. It was a question asked a lot in the Sixties, but it's every bit as relevant now. A great song can ask this question. But a great album does it far better. It puts a story in your head that's difficult to shake off.
Davies uses music well in the telling of the story, letting the pace of the song, the temp0, and the mood fit the lyric. Also (and you would never know this from the compact disc), each side of the album begins and ends with a strong, memorable song, the last song on Side One, "Australia," setting the stage for Side Two, where we find that "Shangri-La" is not what it was cracked up to be. The album begins strongly with the Arthur of youthful innocence, believing in Britain ("Victoria"), and ends with the title cut, "Arthur,' him wondering if he missed something along the way. There's something in that pause, that getting up to turn the record, that worked well as an artistic device. Finally, listening, I'm holding a large gatefold album in my hands, perusing the art, poring over lyrics, and asking myself the question "what am I living for?" That's a great piece of art: it puts me in the story. Folks, one song just can't as easily do that. One song promises but doesn't quite endure.
So that's another reason I like the album, particularly the concept album. You should try it while it's still possible. Maybe start with Arthur.