This month, we are going to be looking at not one, but two albums with a unifying concept – the fact that they are concept albums. For those unfamiliar with the principle, a concept album is a collection of songs that all have a common theme. This can be a commonality of content – a recently reviewed example is the incredible I Am Snow by The Heather Findlay Band. Alternatively, a concept album might choose to tell a story using traditional narrative methods – last month alone, we looked at the work of Laptop Philharmonic and The Magnetic Fields. We are going to take a look at two albums that fit into the latter category – namely Aimee Mann's 2005 record The Forgotten Arm and The Streets' 2004 release A Grand Don't Come For Free.
As far as the stories they are trying to tell, the two works would certainly not be on the same shelf at Blockbuster (other video rental chains are also no longer available due to the all-consuming power of the internet). Mann's plot feels plucked from a silver screen classic, soundtracked in her inimitable soft rock style. The story follows a boxer by the name of John who meets photographer Caroline whilst exhibiting his talents at a state fair. The pair run away together and navigate the country and their own emotional baggage together. John is a recovering alcoholic who is also dealing with depression as a result of his boxing career coming to an end. Caroline takes on the role of rock, saviour and crutch – accepting John for his flaws and, ultimately, standing by him in spite of them.
Like much of Mann's work, The Forgotten Arm is laced with an enchanting tragedy. By juxtaposing the heady daze of new love with the crushing consumption of addiction, she has created an album that is both tender and unsettling. John struts through lively opening track Dear John like a cockerel through the hen house of small town America, the local hero on parade. Video acts as a microcosm of the couple's troubled relationship – downbeat verses wrestle with choruses of optimism in a cyclical montage of love hampered by reality. That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart has the power to stop whatever I am doing and demand my full attention. It is a porcelain vase of a track – immaculate in its creation, its surface intricately decorated with resignation. The cockerel is revealed as a chanticleer – an illusion that does not escape the pages of fiction. The album's 'happy ending' comes in the form of closing track Beautiful, a heart-wrenching finale which on the surface speaks of recovery and forward momentum. In reality, it feels like a snapshot from the precipice edge – a moment of sunlight before the clouds return. Roll the credits and cast the characters from your memory before real life sets back in and they disappoint you once more.
Mike Skinner et al, on the other hand, are spinning a yarn that feels more akin to modern day Hollyoaks than Mann's homage to 70s Hollywood. A Grand Don't Come For Free also details the rises and falls of a relationship – that of our hero, Mike, and Simone, an employee at JD Sports. This romance is carried out against the backdrop of a missing thousand pounds (the titular grand) and our protagonist's desperate attempts to recover his money. Notable stops along the way include fortuitous failed trips to the betting shop, an ecstasy-fuelled bumble around a nightclub, marijuana-cushioned nights in and a remorse-laden lads' holiday. The story culminates in Simone leaving Mike and shacking up with his best friend, Dan, leaving Mike to pick up the pieces of his life.
A Grand Don't Come For Free is the archetypal The Streets album – simple bass tracks overlaid with Mike Skinner's endearingly unmelodious pavement proclamations. Blinded By The Lights is an intensely atmospheric track that captures the claustrophobic discombobulation of a night club to perfection. Dry Your Eyes is the musical equivalent of an awkward man hug – aching sentiment countered with a swift pat on the back and a few mumbled bright side-isms. The true masterpiece of this album though is closing track Empty Cans which provides the story's denouement. In contrast to Mann's illusory joy, Skinner uses a handy rewind button to present us with two alternate endings. In a Shakespearian style, Mike treats us to a tragic conclusion where he is consumed by his rage and hardship and another more comedic offering which sees him coming to terms with his decisions and being reintroduced to his missing money. It is a powerful close and one that hints at a greater depth than the story may present at first glance.
Though the styles of the two artists could not be more different, I think it is clear to see the power of the concept album. From a story as simple and grounded as the one told by The Streets to the tidal wave of complex emotion conveyed by Aimee Mann, the concept album is a versatile medium through which to weave a tale. We, as a society, are becoming increasingly used to ingesting our stories in 10-12 episodes as television-mongers like Netflix continue their steady roll towards world domination. I think a pleasant by-product of this might be the resurgence of the plot-driven concept album. It may be some time though before we see an opus equal to R.Kelly's Trapped In The Closet grace our auditory platter.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Month
“So, like a ghost in the snow//I'm getting ready to go//'Cause baby, that's all I know//How to open the door”
That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart
Aimee and Skinner
Help us illustrate concepts
Tell musical tales
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