An astronaut stands on the moon with his helmet off. Behind him to the right are paper cutouts of a tree and a house. Behind him on the left is the earth in outer space.
Illustration by Fátima Jandeska, Columbia College Chicago

Concept Albums: Creative Writing in Music

Concepts enrich one’s listening experience because the listener has to do some deconstruction of the songs to find their hidden meaning.
November 14, 2023
10 mins read

Concept albums generate songs that are realistic but still enjoyable.

Many complain mainstream music is not “deep” anymore, with industry plants and meaningless songs coming out left and right. So, where can one find more profound songs? Well, they’re not as rare as you might think. Most songs tend to have a hidden meaning, but the best place to find them is in concept albums.

A concept album tells a story or depicts a theme throughout the collection of songs. When listening to the full album, the meaning becomes more apparent than if the songs were listened to individually. Concept albums are different from others because they are more cohesive, with each song building up to the overall theme, while still being a standalone hit.

Although concept albums may not be for everyone, they are an amazing place to find music if you are looking for something that relates to a specific theme. Concepts enrich one’s listening experience because the listener has to do some deconstruction of the songs to find their hidden meaning. Although the message may not be apparent during the first listen, the more familiar you become with the songs, the more you get to know the story. An active form of listening makes the experience so much more entertaining. Everyone should try to listen to at least one concept album.

Concept Album Recommendations

American Idiot” by Green Day is an impactful concept album. The 2004 album followed many historical events such as the presidency of George W. Bush, 9/11, and the beginnings of the Iraq War. Two of their most popular songs, “American Idiot ” and “Holiday,” are politically charged, referencing and critiquing these events.

In “Holiday” there are mentions of war and presidency in the lines: “‘Sieg Heil’ to the president Gasman/ Bombs away is your punishment/ Pulverize the Eiffel towers/ Who criticize your government.” The band equates the president of the time, George W. Bush, to a Nazi in the first line. Then the Iraq war is mentioned, with a remark about the dislike of the French due to them deciding to not assist the US in the war.

While the themes of distaste for the state of the world at that time appear on the album, the more obvious story being told is of a man, “Jesus of Suburbia.” “Jesus” travels from his hometown in search of a more exciting life, and thus creates an alternate identity, “St. Jimmy.” The album follows the rise and fall of his relationship with a woman, “Whatserface,” and the character development he goes through to try to change his life.

The last track on the album is “Whatserface,” a title representing his unnamed lover. However, the very last lines, “And in the darkest night/ If my memory serves me right/ I’ll never turn back time/ Forgetting you but not the time,” show that although he may have forgotten her name and face, he will not forget the time he spent with her.

A more recent example of a concept album is “Preacher’s Daughter” by Ethel Cain. The artist, whose real name is Hayden Silas Anhedönia writes about themes of familial and religious trauma, which are represented throughout the story of Ethel Cain, a teenager from Alabama who wants to leave her hometown. Towards the beginning of the album, the song “A House in Nebraska” shows Cain reminiscing about a past relationship. Themes of love continue in “Western Nights” when she meets a new man, a man she is willing to do anything for. However, he soon dies and she loses another partner.

Eventually, in the song “Thoroughfare” she meets a new love interest who eventually causes her demise. The song “Ptolemaea,” named after a circle of hell from Dante’s “Inferno”, is the most obvious display of her fear in the situation she is in because of the new man, resulting in a guttural scream from Cain towards the end of the track. She is drugged and kidnapped by him, and eventually accepts her fate in the last few tracks. In the last song on the album, “Strangers,” she is singing to her mother from heaven: “Mama, just know that I love you (I do)/ And I’ll see you when you get here.”

The heartbreaking story presented in “Preacher’s Daughter” shows how Ethel Cain character’s  past trauma eventually led to her wanting to run away from home and how it led to her death.

The album “Electra Heart” by Marina, formerly known as Marina and the Diamonds, is also a concept album, exploring the stereotypical expectations of American women. Four main archetypes are represented through the character Electra Heart: a housewife, a homewrecker, a beauty queen and an idle teen. There are songs named after the archetypes, such as “Homewrecker ” and “Teen Idle,” clearly displaying the change in her identities as she lives her life through them.

Electra adopts different personas to fill in the parts of the life she is unhappy with, such as her love life, which can be seen in the opening lyrics of the song “Fear and Loathing,” when she says, “I lived a lot of different lives/ Been different people many times/ I lived my life in bitterness/ And filled my heart with emptiness.” She is thinking back to her time as her different personalities. As the character Electra Heart embodies different identities, we can see the journey of her self-exploration.

All of these albums have something in common: a message the artist wants to convey to their listeners. For “American Idiot,” themes of self-exploration as we follow the journey of Jesus of Suburbia can be seen, as well as messages responding to the political turmoil at the time of the release of the album. It also explores themes of forgotten love through the story of Jesus of Suburbia. In “Preacher’s Daughter” topics of religious and familial trauma and how they can affect one’s future life and decisions are explored in the journey and eventual death of Ethel Cain. “Electra Heart” conveys messages of the bad parts of American stereotypes for women, and how one can lose oneself in them. All of these topics are based on the real world, which just makes them even more hard-hitting. For example, in “Preacher’s Daughter,” the religious trauma exhibited in the album is a dramatized reflection of the artist’s real-life experiences with her religious upbringing.

Having a common story throughout an album is an amazing reason why you should listen to concept albums because finding one album containing a message you can relate to allows you to find many songs with the same themes. Also, a great amount of work is put into these albums, making it so all of the tracks tie in together. The long process that usually goes into the creation of concept albums ensures a better listening experience because most of the time, the hard work constitutes good music.


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Julia Ray, Northern Arizona University

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Julia Ray

Northern Arizona University
English (Literature)

"Hi! I am currently a freshman studying English at Northern Arizona University, and I love reading and writing in my free time!"

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