Can one call a recording that is selections from a larger theater work a “concept album?” Or is such a term redundant when every theatrical recording is more or less conceptual in its inherent unifying themes?
The question seems like a nonstarter. Yet perhaps it’s thanks to recent mainstream releases like Coldplay’s Mylo Zyloto that “concept” seems to work its way into the back of one’s head when listening to Lonely Motel. The abridged version of Slide, an immersive evening-length theatrical work about a lovelorn psychologist reliving an experiment he conducted involving slide projections and human perception, here played against the backdrop of his failed engagement.
Written by composer Steven Mackey (who is one album away from an album of the week hat trick) and librettist Rinde Eckert—who serve as the piece’s respective narrator and singer—for sextet eighth blackbird, the piece is, in Mackey’s words, “about perception, self-delusion and ultimately about the isolation created by the attachments we develop to our own fuzzy, personal views of reality.”
It’s an apt allegory, a post-millenial take on Plato’s parable of the cave, about the nature of reality. Yet while our questionable hero’s memories of the past are factually ambiguous, the music is nothing if not concrete. There is the jagged catharsis of Lulu tempered with a Rod Serling-ish enigma that underscores the libretto’s references to The Twilight Zone, resonant and arabesque cello lines cast against searing electric guitar slides. A jazzy percussiveness not out of place in Dave Brubeck’s scene captures slow, smoldering stares while Mackey’s cumulus guitar playing lends a veil of fog against Eckert’s immediate tenor.
In the end, Lonely Motel may have more in common with a work like Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe’s The Carbon Copy Building than the Who’s Tommy or Green Day’s American Idiot. No matter. Whatever labels you ascribe to it, awesome music is awesome music.