I’ll admit, I got excited after seeing the announcement that Echo & the Bunnymen are performing their first two albums, Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here, in their entirety on an upcoming North American tour.  Ocean Rain is fine; they played that whole album on tour awhile ago anyway.  For my money, though, the gloomy garage rock—“Going Up,” “Over The Wall,” etc.—that I know and love the Bunnymen for is best found on those two albums.

More to the point, I’m not above an album-in-its-entirety concert experience. Hardly. Sometimes this performance genre overlaps its close cousin, the reunite-the-original-band tour.  I saw Killing Joke do that with their second album a couple of years back; it’s not my favorite record of theirs, but it was the only chance I got to see the original line-up. More often, it seems a band uses the album-in-its-entirety concept to drum up interest in a tour featuring just one or two original musicians; thus, I went to see Richard and Tim Butler plus whoever is playing with them do the Psychedelic Furs’Talk Talk Talk last year. It’s astonishing to see how many bands are doing this now; just type “perform album in its entirety” into Google and see what comes up.
Many bands play all the songs off an album when they play live; that’s often the modus operandi whenever a group “tours the new album.”  What distinguishes the album-in-its-entirety performance genre is its focus on an old album, one that audiences have come to love over the years, or that may be due a critical reappraisal after years of neglect. Some groups don’t stop with one album; even an entire back catalogue can get a much-needed reappraisal. (Sparks probably holds the record: 21 albums in 21 shows. Man, I wish I could have been there!)

What makes for a good album-in-its-entirety concert? For some, the answer centers on the band’s motivations.  Is it to satisfy audience demand (i.e., for the money)?  That seems to be the case for the Pixies, who’ve been touring for the last 6 years and have recorded maybe one new original song in 20 years; not too many people seem to mind. In other cases it’s the commercial payoff for having put out a new, unsolicited and frankly uninteresting album. Having apparently demonstrated their artistic integrity, they give their audiences what they really want (which certainly isn’t the new album) and get handsomely rewarded in the process. (By this criterion, I think Elvis Costello should give himself the license to play a series of concerts recreating his early, Nick Lowe-produced albums. Just nothing that ever had T-Bone Burnett on it, okay?)

I’d never begrudge a band drawing on its old repertoire. It’s exhilarating when they’re able to rearrange the song or otherwise indicate that they too have reevaluated their own songs (again, search for “Sparks 21×21” on YouTube for some remarkable reinventions of their back catalogue). In any case, a band’s old music is rightfully theirs to return to. No one ever complains when Pete Seeger plays “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”; why should it be different for a rock band?  Still, the deliberate adherence to the structure of an old album is a different beast, a little too uncanny. By playing songs in the album’s original sequence, these performances invariably refer to a musical experience that audiences know in a different context: listening to recorded music, often (and over time increasingly, unless there’s been a rash ofPinkerton parties that I’m not aware of) in solitary isolation. Like an unearthed outtake or maybe some really good drugs, an album-in-its-entirety concert recasts and reanimates an experience that’s been frozen in time. That can be really exciting, but ultimately the album in your head demands your attention, distracting from the performance that’s directly on stage in front of you.

Here’s a random association: Is there an urban counterpart to the album-in-its-entirety tour?  Is it the historically preserved city that’s been carefully themed and sustained by local policy: Venice with its canals, Bruges with its lace? Or the model New Urbanist community: Seaside, Celebration?  Why is it so easy to accuse these places of bad faith, of trying to hold on to a moment of glory that has “rightfully” passed into history, in the same way we might criticize a band for performing an old album in its entirety?

What informs the implied, unspoken idea of authenticity that we adhere to in this criticism?  Cities, we’re told by urbanists of the classic persuasion, are social and economic centers of remarkable dynamism and change.  But from at least Max Weber’s The City on, we also know that cities are social constellations for and material expressions of elite interests. Granted, the neomarxian perspective tends to emphasize the destabilizing consequences of these interests (the “growth machine,” for example), but by this day and age not all urban elites promote the ceaseless transformation of urban environments. Why as urbanists should we necessarily impute that agenda and our criticism of it to cities? If city users come to local consensus, and if they have a realistic strategy to accommodate the tides of capitalist dynamism outside city limits — two big “ifs” that go well beyond the scope of this post — then shouldn’t we just say good luck and God bless to you guys?

Of course this is a silly comparison.  At worst, an album-in-its-entirety concert is just bad, lifeless art. No gentrification, no reneging on the promise of new jobs, no regressive redistribution of wealth ever comes about when an 80s band trots out an album for eager listeners. (Well… a young band looking to get signed and pass the extortion threshold of a Concert Nation contract might beg to differ.) Our judgment of music is aesthetic; however, our judgement of urban policy is ultimately made on moral grounds.  Right?

Or, in the left criticism of historical preservation and New Urbanism, do we alsosneak in a modernist aesthetic that obligates cities to continual innovation and the authentic expression of “our times”?  Is that really appropriate? Does that strike a blow for social justice, or just aesthetic snobbery?