The Big Picture - By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

The Big Picture

Robin Smith serenades his favourite(?) four, very indie, concept albums. Author: on May 7, 2013
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In 2012, the awesome (but confusingly syntaxed) ?uestlove wrote a column for Pitchfork listing concept albums that inspired his own – The Roots’ Undun. In praise of that fantastic album, and in full knowledge that “concept album” is a disputed, generally stupid term, here are my own – very indie – picks.

Sufjan Stevens – Michigan

Let’s not forget Undun’s catalyst. Last year, The Roots used samples from Joanna Newsom and the Monsters of Folk, but the way their newest record descends into the indie sphere is startling: it circles in on “Redford”, a song so delicate the Roots are scared to even touch it. Instead, the album features the original Sufjan composition, in front of three instrumental movements, and it takes the album dramatically out of its landscape. Or, you might argue that this comes first, and the hip-hop is what transforms the record. That’s if you want to be difficult. The Roots named their story’s hero after Sufjan’s little piano instrumental and transformed the newly-born character’s life into a street-level tragedy, but regardless of how different the two records are, it’s interesting that from one concept album spawns another. Michigan was my favourite of Sufjan’s two State albums, and that’s probably because he was a little more attached for this one — it’s his home state, and it feels like every city he talks about isn’t listed and overwritten for ambition alone. It’s like Sufjan knows the place inside out on Michigan, whether it’s a love letter to a broken city or the blues for how the other half live up on the Upper Peninsula.
The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs

It would be nigh-on criminal not to mention something as ambitious as 69 Love Songs, and most people probably know its arc already. It’s pretty self-explanatory, as luck would have it; all about love, a lot of it parody. This record spawned Peter Gabriel’s cover of “The Book of Love,” but when Stephen Merritt heard it, his response was that the song was meant to be a joke. Let’s not forget the story behind the record though, because it fits the tone well: Merritt found himself in a gay bar, when the idea to write as many show-tunes as possible came into his head, but that idea became this twee pop delight instead. Add Merritt’s tone of hateful joylessness into the mix, and you’ve got an over-the-top triple album rounded in a deep, depressing baritone. If someone tried to explain how good this record was to Stephen Merritt, he’d respond aghast, “good?! What’s good about it?!” Or so I imagine.

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