TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
So I recently heard an album that I had been curious about for quite a while: Blurryface by twenty one pilots. While I have enjoyed the two singles from that album, “Tear in My Heart” and “Stressed Out,” the songs themselves were not really what had me curious about the album. What intrigued me was the fact that band were calling their recent release a concept album.
Concept albums have been around since the late 1960s. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is often considered the first concept album, the premise of such a project being an entire album with a unifying theme, such as a consistent narrative story that is carried from one song to the next or a dominant idea that is explored throughout. The psychedelia movement brought several early classics in the genre, such as Sgt. Pepper and the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. And concept albums really hit their stride with the Prog Rock movement in the 1970s with groups like Yes (Fragile), The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia), Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall), and Jethro Tull (Aqualung). The vast majority of these albums tell stories with a discrete beginning, middle, and end, and one might contend that this temporal kind of format is the best known for these types of projects. This was the sticking point that confused me with the twenty one pilots album. How can one tell a story with a specific narrative trajectory, using a medium where the typical listener plays music on a randomized setting?
I’ve done a lot of research on the process of story telling in other musical contexts, and one consistent factor of narrative, whether in a novel, a play, a movie, or an album is that the events occur in a specific order. The story teller, or in this case, song writer, can present that events out of their natural order (like a flashback in a TV show or movie that provides background or a flash forward meant to tease the audience), but this must be intentional and done with a design so that information is conveyed in the most compelling way. By the time we, the audience, get to the end of the story, we should be surprised, or relieved, or sad, but somehow, we must feel different when we’re finished.
Modern albums are rarely consumed in the order in which they are intended. Even if we listen from a CD, players often shuffle the contents, and if we are streaming or playing mp3s, this randomizing process is almost always in effect. So, with all that in mind, what does it mean for a group in the digital age to release a concept album? How do you tell a story if all of your components are likely to be received in a random order?
I suppose the most likely solution to the problem is to reexamine the notion of a concept album from its beginnings. Of all of the albums I listed above, one in particular stands out: Yes’s Fragile. What makes this work a concept album has little to do with an extra-musical storyline, but more of a song writing technique and performance constant. The drummer of the band, Bill Bruford, pitched the idea, “Why don’t we do some individual things, whereby we all use the group for our own musical fantasy?” Keyboardist Rick Wakeman expanded on the notion, “[We] could find out where each individual player’s contribution lay.” In other words, the concept that unifies the Yes album is the individual members’ own creative direction, their virtuosity, and their willingness to work together to envision one another’s ideas. Truthfully, I don’t know if such a project would even be considered a concept album if it were made today.
Anyway, back to twenty one pilots. A similar notion unifies this album: the insecurities of the lead singer and primary songwriter, Tyler Joseph. Music, its creation and performance, serve as the unifying theme for this new album, both conceptually and lyrically. The title of the album, Blurryface, refers to a fictional character of the same name, who represents Joseph’s struggle to come to terms with his work in the music industry. Lyrics on the album refer to a lack of confidence in his own song writing ability: “I wish I had some better sounds no one’s ever heard. I wish I had a better voice to sing some better words. I wish I found some chords in an order that is new. I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.”
As a way to combat his fears of being on stage, Tyler began to create a stage persona. To embody this fictional character, which he called Blurryface, he took to wearing ski masks and black makeup on his neck and hands on stage. The album, named after his alter ego, also deals with the duality that began to emerge in his professional life, as his own personality began to merge in certain aspects with the artificial one that he had created. This battle comes to the forefront in the final song on the album, “Goner,” with the lyric, “I’ve got two faces, Blurry’s the one I’m not. I need your help to take him out.”
What makes this album compelling is the fact that it holds up, not only to the conceptual unity that is the hallmark of a concept album, but as a product of the twenty-first century. The songs relay different facets of a single theme, but they do not require a sequential hearing in order to convey their story. It’s more like a sitcom, comprised of discrete episodes that relate to a theme, but don’t require that the viewer watch them in order, rather than a drama, where missing a single airing can potentially ruin an entire season.
To me, this album almost negates its own reason for existing - but in a good way. I would be hard-pressed to compare it to any of the classic concept albums I mentioned about, but the lyrics are clever, the songs are catchy, and the premise behind the work as a whole is relatable. To explicitly identify Blurryface as a concept album automatically raises comparisons with some truly magnificent music, but taken of its own accord, I found this album to be quite enjoyable.
Let me know what you think of twenty one pilots and their album Blurryface. Does the theme benefit from listening to the songs in order, or does it matter? How does changing the order of the songs alter the listening experience? What do you think of the music itself? Does Joseph Tyler have reason to be self-conscious about him music?
 Hedges, Dan. Yes: An Authorized Biography (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1982), 62.
 Welch, Chris. Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes (London: Omnibus Press, 2008), 117.
 Lyrics from the song “Stressed Out.”
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.