The concept album is a tricky beast. It takes a lot of thought, planning, and focus. With excellent work in these areas, you can come away with something amazing (Dark Side of the Moon, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea). But, if you slack in any area, or have a terrible concept, you can come out with something that makes you want to punch children (most of the later albums by Styx). It can very easily become a joke and bury you, especially if its your first widely released album.
Thats the situation that new it-girl/music sensation Janelle Monáe finds herself in with her latest effort, The ArchAndroid. Maybe not the joke and bury you part, but definitely the touchy ground part. The ArchAndroid consists of suites II and III of her Metropolis concept/story, with the first suite having been released as an EP back in 2007. The story follows protagonist Cindi Mayweather as she becomes a messiah figure to the androids in the city of Metropolis.
Monáe is able to accomplish something rarely seen in pop music: an epic album that stretches across multiple genres while still holding the majority of the listeners attention with catchy hooks and beats. The album features 18 tracks and clocks in at over 70 minutes, so its quite a bit to take in a first listen. She is an incredibly talented singer and songwriter, and, from what Ive seen of her live performances, an energetic and engaging performer.
That being said, I may be one of the only music writers in the world that isnt completely taken by this album. I have read so many reviews naming this album as the savior of music. Yes, this is a good album, but its almost too much. Maybe Im too lazy to take it all in, maybe my attention span is too short for this long of an album, or maybe its really not an amazing album.
It is good, yes. There are some songs that are fantastic. The lead single, Tightrope, is one of the better songs I have heard in a long time. After I first heard it, I couldnt get it out of my head for days. As I listen to it now, I think its the best song on the album, especially after I saw her performance of it on David Letterman this week. I think the addition of Big Boi makes me long for the days of Love Below/Speakerboxx. It is a very Outkast-sounding song, and yes, The ArchAndroid does bring to mind The Love Below as many outlets have said. The out-of-nowhere rockabilly jam Come Alive is also a solid song, and a memorable one at that. Monáe changes up her usually smooth R&B vocals for a harsher, punk vocal styling that she nails incredibly well.
The first half of Monáes album is filled with incredibly catchy beats that had my foot tapping, but the songs arent that memorable over all. While they do flow together well in a transitional sense, they also tend to flow together in a stylistic sense. I wasnt sure where one song was supposed to end and the other begin, other than what the track listing on iTunes read.
There are some jolting transitions as well. After Come Alive comes the slow, spacey, Flaming Lips-esque jam, Mushrooms & Roses. The song takes Monáe from hard, screaming vocals to vocals that are drenched in effects, low in her register, and more spoken than sung. That transitions into the soundtrack-sounding Suite III Overture.
The third suite starts with the slow-jam feel of Neon Valley Street before transitioning into the back-to-back Of Montreal psych-rock of Make the Bus (which features Of Montreal themselves) and Wondaland. It then closes out with the Scarborough Fair twin 57821, jazzy Say Youll Go, and the fantastically sung bossa nova/cabaret tune BaBopByeYa.
Overall, the album is good. Monáe does a great job of using her musical theater training to move between vocal styles. There are some incredibly catchy tunes. On a whole, though, the albums scope is a little too vast for one album. Dabbling in different genres is a fantastic and natural thing for musicians to do. Its a sign of a serious musician. But, putting all of those influences into one, 70+ minute album can be detrimental. Monáe does a good job of holding her own throughout the album. The story is there, and you can understand it. The hype is worth at least that aspect. But, for this album, it could have stood to be toned down, ever so slightly.