❉ Decades is a shameless embrace of the full glory of what the concept album can do.
Let’s get the dirty words out of the way first: concept album. Concept albums have largely been out of favour since The Damned smashed it up and the Pistols gate crashed the jubilee, effectively ending consigning the likes of Yes and ELP to a technically brilliant musical dead end. What started as a sub genre of late 1960s rock pioneered by the likes of The Pretty Things was largely abandoned as a decadent excess around a decade later. Though literary references abounded in the new wave and synthpop of the early 80s few were intrepid enough to attempt to tell a story across an album. There have been a few honourable exceptions, such as Bowie’s 1. Outside, The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free and My Chemical Romance’s Welcome to the Black Parade but as a rule the makers of concept albums have come from an almost exclusively musical background (Bowie, the great polymath of pop culture excepted) : what they’ve delivered has mainly been a themed suite of songs rather than an album draped in story.
Decades is a shameless embrace of the full glory of what the concept album can do. Like much of the best art it comes from a collision of disciplines: David Palfreyman providing the music and lyrics and Nicholas Pegg the story (and, I suspect the contacts book). Instead of being a suite of songs roughly linked by a common theme this is essentially a four act play, each act equivalent to one side of vinyl in old money. The concept is a simple and strong one: a man looking back over his life via the device of writing his memoirs. David Warner’s rich tones do for Palfreyman and Pegg what Richard Burton did for Jeff Wayne, a grand storyteller holding the story together. The not so wise old man reflecting and regretting is almost tailor made for him. It’s particularly great when he’s teamed with the ever fruity Jacqueline Pearce, a combination of two actors seemingly incapable of being unentertaining if they tried.
The ‘casting’ is one of the great things about the album. On the acting front Edward Holtom and Richard Coyle both deliver as the young Kelver: you can believe that this is the young hellraiser who’ll become the regretful Warner in time. Jan Ravens is a fine counter to him, getting to stretch herself in multiple roles in a way her more well known career as an impressionist rarely allows. On the songs too, the singers are well chosen – Jessica Lee Morgan’s contributions are perfectly tailored to her, almost an extension of her solo work: Mitch Benn belts out his song with the boldness and bravado it needs and Sarah Jane Morris’s vocals remind that the power she brought to Don’t Leave Me This Way hasn’t faded with time. We All Fall Down’s strong delivery made it an obvious choice for first single.
What’s also impressive is how adept Palfreyman is at flitting between different styles: where the title song which opens and closes the album has the style of the Sixties (only modern production would tell you that it and the likes and There Goes My Darling weren’t actually of the time) and Act II has some very Seventies accented songs the last two acts generally feel far more modern in their delivery. It’s a salutary reminder of musical storytelling, how the music can be used to tell a story as well as the words can.
The final stitch in the tapestry which makes Decades a compelling listen is in Pegg’s choice of a non-linear narrative. We begin near the end, with the point which forces Kelver to look back on his life and end at the chronological end of the story but in between those points the reflections feel thematic: someone making sense of their life by reflecting on events which make sense when compared and contrasted rather than in sequence.
It’s a simple choice, but one which ultimately makes the album work – it feels like the way humans reflect and remember, in sequences which may look like a jumble from the outside but which ultimately make sense in the context of their telling their own story. Along with the performances and the mood of the music it genuinely feels like there’s a person at the heart of this album, even if they are fictional. That’s the ultimate triumph of Decades – it uses music and performance to tell the story of the joys and triumphs of a life and how looking back on our own actions can almost be gazing at the actions of a stranger we used to be.
❉ Decades was released on 14 July 2017 on double CD, double vinyl and digital download. The single and video We All Fall Down, featuring Sarah Jane Morris, was released two weeks earlier on 30 June. To find out more and to order your copy now, visit the Decades website.