Rightly or wrongly few words in the musical dictionary incite a stronger reaction than the phrase, “concept album”. We instantly find ourselves shaking our fists in the general direction Rick Wakeman, while secretly blaring out The Six Wives Of Henry VIII whenever the sun starts shining. It’s very difficult as a music fan to not instantly think of capes, wizards and Led Zeppelin banging on about Hobbits. So, can a concept album work? You bet it can!
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders from Mars was David Bowie playing the role of an alien coming down to tell us of the joys of free love and even-more-free rock’n’roll. The Kinks arguably never sounded better than when detailing the intricate, weirdness of British countryside living on The Village Green Preservation Society. Sufjan Stevens wrote two of his finest albums based around the history of Illinois and Michigan, and might one day get around to delivering the further 50 albums he clearly owes us all.
The key, it would seem is to make sure that just because you’re writing a concept album doesn’t mean you have to give up on writing good songs. So musicians everywhere, remember next time your bandmate comes up to you saying he’s got a really good idea about writing an entire album about Brexit, The World Cup or the history of communism, remember, in the right hands, any idea is a good idea.
One band who’ve embraced all things conceptual in recent times are Cambridge indiepop collective Mammoth Penguins & Friends. Their latest album, released last year on the ever conceptual wiaiwya label (see Seven at Seventy Seven 2017 for evidence) was an exploration of the life, faked death and surprise return of the titular character, John Doe.
The record set out to explore how these events affected various people in John’s life; his child, his ex, his mates from down the pub. These short vignettes exploring how his death and subsequent return affected the people whose lives he encroached on. Today we’re sharing the video to the album’s final track, and arguably most painful moment, The Wife.
Presented from the point of the grieving widow, turned very confused spouse, The Wife is built around twitchy electronic samples, and a maudlin pulse of piano chords; vocalist Emma Kupa doing much of the melodic lifting, as it crackles with confusion and sadness. It’s a track that never swells, just slowly drifts, like the wife’s whirring mind struggling to find some sort of meaning to the events that have torn her life apart. The doubts, the pain, the anger, they’re all present in the lyrics, perhaps surmised in the repeated lyric, “now you’re back, just like before, saying you love me, but I don’t know if there’s a space for you here anymore.” As with the entirety of the album it’s lifted from, The Wife explores not just the events that shaped this record, but also the human psyche in general. The story might be unusual, unimaginable even, yet the emotions expressed are, to almost anyone listening, entirely relatable.
You can watch the video below, and then read on for a mixtape of some of Mammoth Penguins & Friends’ favourite concept albums, taking in everyone from PJ Harvey to The Streets and Randy Newman to Public Service Broadcast.
We released a concept album late last year. It’s not something that many indiepop bands do. Usually the concept album is reserved for prog-rockers in sequined capes. But if you dig deeper, there are some great albums out there that most people would never think to label as a concept album.
It’s about time that we, the unpretentious lovers of pop music, reclaimed this genre once again! To celebrate the concept album, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favourite songs from some incredible concept albums in our record collections. These are just a few of our favourites, and just like with John Doe, topics such as family, death and the sea can be found throughout.
1. Jed The Humanoid – Grandaddy (The Sophtware Slump)
Emma: For me, the beginnings of our album John Doe stem completely from the Sophtware Slump by Grandaddy. I have loved this record and returned to it regularly since I was a teenager. The electro-alt rock sound combined with the narrative is what inspired me to take the John Doe songs I had written and make the record we did. I think this track is my favourite and I love Jed and his poems.
2. Empty Cans – The Streets (A Grand Don’t Come For Free)
Tom: This album uses sounds and styles that are not usually associated with concept albums, being based around a gritty lo-fi garage sound, but has ambitions that go much further than making the club bounce. This track sticks to the concept album template of long songs, and features a lovely change in harmony at around 3 and a half minutes in, when the events of the album so far combine to help our protagonist reconcile with his mates, experience an epiphany following a physical confrontation with a TV repairman… The video is someone’s school project and is quite fun.
3. Louisiana 1927 – Randy Newman (Good Old Boys)
Emma: I found this album in my dad’s record collection as a teenager and have listened to it on and off ever since. Randy Newman is such an incredible songwriter and I love this album so much! He can write from very different perspectives and that was a big influence for John Doe.
4. Poor Little Thing – The Broken Family Band (Jesus Songs)
Mark: This is the first BFB song I ever heard, and the only one I listened to for years. I think they had it as a free download back in the MySpace days. Despite living in the same town, I only ever watched them play live once, at Latitude festival in 2009. Steven Adams had to contend with a wasp that kept landing on his microphone. It was probably pretty scary for him, but entertaining to watch. We’ve played with Steve a couple of times now, and he’s still writing great songs.
5. The Last Living Rose – PJ Harvey (Let England Shake)
Emma: Let England Shake blew my mind when it came out and I still love this album a heck of a lot. PJ Harvey is an amazing artist and although I am generally quite averse to anything other than 4/4 and mainstream melodies etc, this album is so accessible but it also pushed my musical horizons. Also, the songs are so beautiful and catchy!
6. If I died – Sweet Baboo (Ships)
Joe: I’m sure I read somewhere that this is a concept album based loosely around nautical themes so that’s good enough for it to be on this list, right? What’s not to love about this record: it’s got self deprecating Daniel Johnston references, it’s got an amazing delay guitar sound and it’s bleep-blop solo in the middle.
7. Arkholme – Darren Hayman (Thankful Villages)
Mark: Darren Hayman has a good selection of concept albums to choose from. Chants for Socialists, Lido, the one about the Russian space dogs… But we’ve chosen a track from his most recent project. Thankful villages are those places in the UK that sent men off to fight in the first world war, and had them all return safely home. If you listen very carefully to this track, you might make out a couple of Penguins in the chorus of voices.
8. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel (In The Aeroplane Over The Sea)
Mark: This is probably my favourite concept album. It’s in a lot of people’s record collection and in some circles has probably suffered from excess listening. But maybe a lot people don’t think of it as a concept album? Most of the songs are written about Anne Frank, or at least inspired by The Diary of a Young Girl. The lyrics are heart-wrenching, as you’d expect, and musically it sounds so raw and scrappy. Holland 1945 is, and should be, played at every indie club night.
9. Parting Of The Sensory – Modest Mouse (We were dead before the ship even sank)
“Any shithead who had ever walked could take the ship and do a much finer job.“
Mark: Amazingly prescient, this concept album released in 2007 charts the journey of Britain’s exit from the European Union. The original concept was apparently that the whole crew of a ship died in every song. I couldn’t find an official video, so here’s one with some very impressive interpretive dance.
10. Sputnik – Public Service Broadcasting (The Race For Space)
Tom: You can’t do a concept album mixtape and not include PSB, masters of the genre… This understated gentle (at least at first) track features the bleep produced by Sputnik cleverly woven into the track itself. (Bonus points for anyone who can name who has collaborated with both Mammoth Penguins and PSB…!)
John Doe is out now via wiaiwya. Click HERE for more information on Mammoth Penguins & Friends.