Sunday, December 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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And an "Idiot" shall lead them: Concept album is back

The Orange County Register

Thing is, most albums worth hearing are conceptual to some degree.

That's really the whole point of putting songs together as albums — to give the illusion of cohesion, enhance a batch of tunes with artifice and sequencing. By that measure, even greatest-hits discs have concept.

But then there are those bold stabs at metaphor or operatic story lines or at the very least a change of persona that arrive oozing meticulous detail, thematic unity — and usually some level of pretension.

These are no mere singles-spawning sets. "Tommy," "The Wall," "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars," "What's Going On," most recently "American Idiot" — these are true concept albums. Grandiose bursts of imagination filled with sketchy narratives or compelling antiheroes or puzzles to decipher, they are works designed to be heard in their entirety.

Once they held sway over FM radio like titans, totems of a generation whose mention alone still gives off the stench of bong hits and musty record sleeves. Then the notion fell from popularity for many years, overtaken by image-brokering videos that, in many cases, were simply variations of the same play-acting concept that albums put into motion.

"It's not like the concept album ever totally disappeared at any point," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for record-biz bible Billboard. "From time to time, someone throws that ball up in the air again."

But suddenly the idea has returned in a big way, earning both critical acclaim and impressive sales. After a long dry spell, there are as many concept albums hovering in the pop culture ether as beach balls at an outdoor festival.

Credit Green Day for launching the revival.

The band's 2004 opus, "American Idiot," wasn't the first conceptual effort this decade; the 2001 debut from animated outfit Gorillaz, Jay-Z's past few albums and even Beck's heartbroken "Sea Change" from 2003 qualify as concept albums in some sense.

But "Idiot," with its lengthy suites of songs and hard-to-follow (perhaps nonexistent) narrative, was certainly the first in years to follow the blueprint established in the late '60s via seminal works from the Who and the Kinks.

More crucially, the album's multiplatinum success and Grammy wins have reopened the door for others to follow suit — notably the Killers and My Chemical Romance.

Neither the former's "Sam's Town" (which hyperstylizes the '80s look and sound of Springsteen, U2 and Bowie) or the latter's "The Black Parade" (also in thrall to Bowie, and more so Queen) reaches for the relative complexity of Green Day's masterstroke. And neither really attempts to tell a story.

Yet both works share a sense of continuity — of songs segueing one to the next, carrying forth mounting emotions. And both shroud their creators in radically altered personas: My Chem, like the Beatles posing as "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" before it, has gone so far as to refer to itself as the Black Parade on its Web site.

Those three modern-rock attractions are far from the only ones venturing into this lofty territory, however. The current list seems to swell monthly.

New works from acts like the Decemberists ("The Crane Wife") and Nevada singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom ("Ys") utilize centuries-old texts as launching pads into prog-folk flights of fancy — not unlike (though sounding nothing like) Yes' "Tales From Topographic Oceans" three decades ago.

Coping with psychological trauma in song cycle (somewhat the basis for Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and the Who's "Quadrophenia") has come back into vogue as well.

This year the Texas group Blue October issued "Foiled," in which singer Justin Furstenfeld overcomes a rough romance through a protracted tale of substance abuse and insanity.

And "Everything in Transit," Andrew McMahon's scarred song cycle under the pseudonym Jack's Mannequin, can be heard as strangely prescient about the O.C.-spawned songwriter's bout with leukemia, diagnosed just after he completed the record.

To top it off, some dinosaurs are back at it: Meat Loaf just put out his third "Bat Out of Hell" installment, and Pete Townshend, the unparalleled maestro of concept albums, concluded "Endless Wire," the first proper Who album in nearly a quarter-century, the same way he ended proto-concept albums like "A Quick One" and "The Who Sell Out" 40 years ago: with a mini-opera, "Wire & Glass."

Besides, acts like Green Day and the Killers and My Chem are having it both ways, issuing sit-with-'em-awhile thinkers that also spawn omnipresent radio smashes, something achieved in the past only by more commercially geared concept albums (like "What's Going On" and "Purple Rain").

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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