Concept albums like ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and ‘Blurryface’ are saving music listeners

Illustration by Sammy Newman

Quentin Rice, Staff Writer

I was crammed into a damp, unremarkable basement last week with an assortment of sweaty strangers to shove each other around, shout existential questions at a person with a guitar and spend way too much money on clothing.

By 11:30 p.m. that night, my voice was fried to a crisp. I was drenched in a queasy combination of my own funk and that of strangers, and my legs were close to giving out. And when punk band Origami Angel bid their farewell, I would have given anything to do it all again, and most people at the show I spoke with agreed.

From the outside, it sounds traumatic — like amateur wrestling with extra steps to the deafening tunes of dissonance and distortion. So why do we go to these shows? Everyone has their own preferred poison, but I, and many others in the more underground emo/punk scene that Origami Angel occupies, approach emotional catharsis with a sense of masochism that is best experienced collaboratively. 

“Not everyone can do it, and good songwriting and musicianship are still paramount. But concepts such as these may be the best way to build a dedicated fan base.” —Quentin Rice

It’s a community, and Origami Angel, like many other acts, has figured out how to rally a sad crowd around a healthy idea.

Origami Angel’s debut album, “Somewhere City,” was released Nov. 15. It’s a soft concept album with a title representative of the refuge inside the listener’s brain where nothing is expected of them — a place where they can come and go as they choose without trying to fit preconceived notions and where “you don’t have to do anything or be anyone, just follow the road.”

Punk rockers have been using music for emotional confession for almost half a century, and blues musicians have been doing it for far longer. There is a recent trend of building communities around these types of discussions about mental health.

Twenty One Pilots’ 2015 record “Blurryface” is perhaps the most obvious example. Despite its flaws, “Blurryface” accomplished what it set out to do. 

Frontman Tyler Joseph said in a 2015 interview with MTV that “Blurryface” is a character he created to project all of his own insecurities and doubts onto. He’s a sort of shadow persona who exists to make it easier for Joseph to identify the positive aspects of himself and make himself easier to love. In the closing track, “Goner,” Joseph sings, “I’ve got two faces/ Blurry’s the one I’m not.” 

The idea worked, and “Blurryface” launched Twenty One Pilots into worldwide acclaim. According to Billboard, it became the first album to earn at least gold certification by the RIAA on every single track. In addition, the band is now followed by a ravenous fan base that frequently discusses how the “Blurryface” concept has helped them deal with their own mental health issues. 

If these milestones are anything to go by, Origami Angel may be on a similar course with the uplifting themes and imagery on their debut.

The final concept album I want to mention is Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Like “Somewhere City” and “Blurryface,” “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a brilliant collision of competent songwriting and an honest discussion of mental health. 

The ongoing poem that Lamar weaves through the record that concludes in the final track is incredibly dense and progressive.

One of the poems’ final lines is “Just because you wore a different gang color than mine doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man. … If I respect you, we’re unified in stopping the enemy from killing us.” This is the heart of the unity Lamar attempts to curate with “To Pimp a Butterfly” — giving fans the opportunity to convene and be vulnerable with each other. And it was a fast track to a real, genuine musical achievement. 

What Origami Angel, Twenty One Pilots and Kendrick Lamar illustrate is that formulating an idea that fans can use to share their own struggles and experiences through is what interests music listeners. 

Not everyone can do it, and good songwriting and musicianship are still paramount. But concepts such as these may be the best way to build a dedicated fan base.

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