Arts and Entertainment

Conceptualizing the Concept Album

A look into what attributes make up a good concept album framed through the reviews of multiple successful concept albums.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Skye McArthur

Music provides artists with an outlet to convey emotions, experiences, and messages to their audiences. However, the methods of communicating these messages vary from artist to artist and album to album. Songs on many conventional albums convey ideas that may greatly differ in subject matter from other songs on those albums. Other albums, however, use an overarching structure to express their ideas, connecting each song to develop a “concept album.” A concept album adds cohesion by exploring a certain narrative or theme throughout the entire record, and the final product is better than the sum of its parts. Concept albums have been in the public consciousness for decades, with many in the genre rising in popularity and influence as classics.

However, many are unaware of what specifically allows for these albums to succeed, which, in some cases, has led to disastrous failures. For example, “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” (2017) is Halsey’s sophomore album, in which the concept revolves around Halsey’s former relationship and her struggles with it. It’s framed as an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, where the titular characters are gender-swapped and live in the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, a purgatory for those who deserve neither heaven nor hell. The album and its concept ended up falling flat because of the overly perplexing nature of the concept and the narrative it attempted to explore. She failed to articulate the plot, leaving listeners lost. Halsey made no attempt to bridge the gap between the music and the narrative, leaving the concept feeling underbaked and tacked on. “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” clearly shows what makes a bad concept album, but what does it take to make a good one?

The first step is to properly execute the “concept.” An example of a good concept within a concept album is Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (1979). The narrative concept of “The Wall” tells the life of the fictitious rockstar Pink. Each song of the album explores parts of Pink’s life as traumatic experiences make him start to build a metaphorical “wall” around himself, closing himself off further and further from human contact. “Another Brick in the Wall” parts one, two, and three explore the process of Pink building his metaphorical wall throughout the album. Part one discusses the beginning of him building his wall following the death of his father in World War II, while part two delves into the trauma Pink endured from his overprotective mother and his abusive schoolteachers. Finally, in part three, Pink has a violent breakdown where he proclaims he no longer needs love, dismissing everything and everyone around him as more bricks in the wall. The album explores themes of isolation and abandonment through Pink’s journey of constructing his wall and subsequently tearing it down in the final two tracks “The Trial” and “Outside the Wall.” “The Wall” shows a concept well-executed with its simple yet profound look into the life of one fictitious character. The concept is not crazily convoluted, nor completely unique in its subject matter, yet executes its narrative in a way that intrigues listeners through the symbolism of the “wall” and the metaphorical framing of Pink’s mental struggles. The concept is the centerpiece of the album, with each song diving deeply into and contributing to the development of the album’s plot and the themes that go along with it. These are all characteristics necessary for a concept to be implemented well, which helps to explain how “The Wall” captivated many audiences with its concept’s execution and remains a classic to this day.

Though the concept is an integral part of making a concept album, it is still an album at the end of the day; the music and its connection to the concept are also critical to the project’s success. “Hawaii: Part II” (2012), a concept album by Miracle Musical, demonstrates a well-executed interplay between its music and its concept. The album and its songs are framed as a theatrical telling of a tumultuous love story between two unnamed protagonists. The structure of the songs plays into the concept of the album being a musical. For example, the first song, “Introduction to the Snow,” is a short, instrumentally-bare hymn that acts as the brief introduction to the musical, and the final song, “Dream Sweet in Sea Major,” is a seven-minute-long ballad that acts as the epilogue to the album’s narrative, utilizing a reprise from the first song to make the record come full circle, just as what would happen in a piece of musical theater. The concept further plays into the actual music and its tone, as shown with “Isle Unto Thyself,” in which the romantic mood of the song plays into its place in the album’s story as the male protagonist meets the female protagonist for the first time during the events of the song. On the other hand, “Murders,” with its frantic and dark tone built by piercing instrumentation and trepidating vocalizations of lead singer Joe Hawley, conveys the emotions felt by the male protagonist after he lost his love interest.

Another way in which the concept and music intertwine is in the various leitmotifs and callbacks present throughout the album. In the song “The Mind Electric,” the melody used in “Labyrinth” is sampled at the end of the song, while “Dream Sweet in Sea Major” borrows various lines and musical samples from other songs on “Hawaii: Part II.” This is seen in lines such as “And lo, the hues arrange to show it’s perfectly clear,” a line borrowed directly from an earlier song, “Black Rainbows.” The way that the music within the songs of “Hawaii: Part II” is affected by the concept goes to show how the album successfully utilizes its concept to elevate and add cohesiveness between the songs of the record. The concept of a concept album should heighten the song’s quality by adding a unique identity and meaning to the songs, transcending them beyond simply being musical works and making them part of a larger narrative or message. The characteristic ways in which the concept and the music influence each other on the album are attributes that should be present in any good concept album to truly promote the quality of the album’s songs as a whole.

One specific album that thoroughly exhibits all the characteristics of a good concept album is “SELF-iSH” (2016) by Will Wood. The album deals with themes of identity, mental health, and substance abuse, with its main message being that the idea of the “self” is illusory and fake. The album explores this idea by telling a narrative through the eyes of a past Will, in which he enters an identity crisis fueled by his copious abuse of psychedelics and alcohol, believing that he is no longer himself and that his “true” self is hidden somewhere within his head. This crisis of self is shown in songs such as “Mr. Capgras,” in which Will attempts to artificially replace his personality to fill the void in his current identity, though he fails horribly and finds himself more lost than he was before. Will’s panicked and frenzied mood is felt through the loud and chaotic instrumental combined with the manic rasp the song is sung in, illustrating the urgent existential crisis Will is going through. The rest of the album consists of his self-destructive journey toward trying to find himself, until, in the last few songs, he comes to the realization that his journey was all for nothing and that he was unbound by his platonic self-conception. He can be whoever he wants to be.

“SELF-iSH” also demonstrates an often-overlooked attribute of any great concept album: the non-musical presentation. All aspects of the album call back to its central theme of the “self” in various ways. The entire album’s title is capitalized except for “I,” a letter used as an identifier for oneself when speaking. The album cover shows a vaguely humanoid figure, whose complexion is abstract enough to have an amorphous racial identity, with the Earth and moon orbiting around it as a pair of scissors cuts a circular pattern around the figure. The cover represents the process of eliminating the idea of the world revolving around the “self,” as the world orbiting around the figure is cut out by the scissors on the cover. Many of the song titles make similar references to the themes of the album, such as in “Cotard’s Solution,” which references Cotard’s Syndrome, a psychological condition with which one believes they are dead: the most physical manifestation of the death of the self. All these aspects further elevate the album’s concept as they create meaning in the typically inconsequential parts of the project.

Concept albums are a unique form of music that, when mastered, can yield stellar masterpieces. Through their focus on overarching themes, they are able to capture profound ideas in a distinct and methodical manner that improves the enjoyment of the music itself and gives a singular cohesion to each track. The aforementioned works such as “The Wall,” “SELF-iSH,” and “Hawaii: Part II” are testaments to the concept album’s potential to communicate themes.