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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Book Was Better….

posted by on July 8 at 11:38 AM

A few years back while blinking my way through a first listen of Mastodon’s Leviathan, my wandering mind and I began to compile a rough list of full-length albums based on literary sources. We didn’t get very far. Here is that list:

Leviathan … a distillation of Moby Dick.
Pink Floyd’s Animals … something to do with Animal Farm.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea … ‘inspired by’ The Diary of Anne Frank.

Also, is the Roots album Things Fall Apart based on Achebe’s novel? Not sure. I’ve only heard it once.

That’s all I could think of, then and now. There must be more. I’m missing something obvious, I can feel it. A little help … anyone?

(Deep-ish thoughts below….)

Now, it’s no chore to find individual songs based on works of fiction, but such pairings have always bubbled my bile; I consider them a terribly incongruent transfer of creative energy and ambition. I give these tunes a status only marginally more elevated than the reader-response essay my high school teacher forced me to pen after assigning Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” When the grand sweep of an epic novel is crammed into a three-minute musical squeak, with all the weight and depth of an extended blog post (touché), something is lost.

I’m more interested in finding some truly adventurous (though not necessarily wholly faithful) full-length book-to-album adaptations. Albums that understand the complexities of their source and deal with ‘em fearlessly, musically and lyrically. Leviathan comes close, but as a metal record it’s too parochial to render the dynamic, worldly sweep of Melville’s novel. Lyrically it covers a bit more ground, though the tone is almost uniformly apocalyptic—quite the opposite of some of Moby Dick’s more elegantly spiritual narrative lines. But it’s a good listen, and a grand attempt.

So, what else?

Update! Here’s what we have so far:

Mastodon’s Leviathan = Melville’s Moby Dick
Pink Floyd’s Animals = Orwell’s Animal Farm
Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea = ‘inspired by’ The Diary of Anne Frank
Richard Buckner’s The Hill = Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology
The Decemberists’ The Tain = The Irish Ulster Cycle Táin Bó Cúailnge
The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot = Asimov’s I, Robot
The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination = Various Edgar Allen Poe stories
Eno and Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts = inspired by the Amos Tutuola novel of the same name.
Stephen Tunney’s Flan = Stephen Tunney’s Flan
Virgin Steele’s House of Atreus = Aeschylus’s Oresteia

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Richard Buckner's The Hill - possibly his best album - used only words from Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology.

Posted by Levislade | July 8, 2008 12:38 PM

The Alan Parsons Project’s first two albums, Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Poe) and I Robot (Asimov).

Posted by Dorkus Malorkus | July 8, 2008 1:10 PM

The Tain by The Decemberists is based on the epic Celtic myth of the same name.

Posted by quilty3000 | July 8, 2008 2:19 PM

@3 That's one I'd forgotten, thanks. And thanks to everyone else....

I'll return tomorrow and update the post with whatever appears here ... perhaps making it the most definitive list of its kind ANYWHERE. Fantastic!

Posted by Darby McDevitt | July 8, 2008 3:39 PM
Posted by Brian | July 8, 2008 3:47 PM

Thought of one more - Stephen Tunney, a.k.a Dogbowl (and co-founder of King Missle), released an album Flan in the early '90s that were songs from the novel of the same name that he wrote.

Posted by quilty3000 | July 8, 2008 6:34 PM

And also the Decemberists' Crane Wife was inspired by an ancient chinese proverb, Colin Meloy foudn a book of it in a bookstore in Portland.

Posted by Morgan | July 8, 2008 7:23 PM

Brian Eno/David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was inspired by the Amos Tutuola novel of the same title.

Posted by segal | July 8, 2008 7:29 PM

@5 Thanks for the link. A quick search for the word "album" on this page unearths a few more full-lengths. Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels abound as source material, it seems.

There's no dearth of musicians who have dashed out a quick song in response to their precious experience with a great novel, and this list proves it. I suppose I'm more interested in artists who have attempted full adaptations because the creative and intellectual process of attempting it would be so exquisitely torturous.

Posted by Darby McDevitt | July 8, 2008 8:41 PM

My thirst for recognizing literature as the basis for popular music is less specific than the novel form. Often genre plays a key role in understanding a milieu. I would love to do an essay on post-punk and authors who have influenced those musicians, for example -- The Stranglers' love for Mishima and Heinlein, or Siouxsie's inspiration from Kosinski -- just to start me investigating Ian Curtis and Julian Cope and finding out why they were/are such utterly brilliant writers themselves.

Posted by Chris Estey | July 9, 2008 8:29 AM

I'd second that Richard Buckner album Levi mentioned @ #1. I'm not even a particularly big fan of Buckner's, but that album is great.

Posted by flamingbanjo | July 9, 2008 11:41 AM

@10 That too would be a fruitful adventure.... I posted on this topic mainly because I was curious about the art of adaptation itself; the challenge of a sustained grappling with someone else's work. "The Adaptation" is almost a genre by itself, with its own loose rules and porous boundaries.

So, although I don't necessarily find adaptations more or less important than original work, I am interested in teasing out for myself what might constitute a "successful" or, at the very least, an "interesting" adaptation in this mode, in much the same way we evaluate films adapted from books. Stanley Kubrick, for instance, was a fine adapter of other people's material ... on the other hand, did anyone see one of the two film adaptations of Ulysses? Awful, incompetent, and misguided, IMO...

And as discerning viewers of film, we are perfectly within our rights to claim 'This was an interesting adaptation of this film' and 'This was not' and offer our reasons why. But does it come as naturally to say the same about an album of adapted material? I just don't think anyone bothers..... why not? I've never heard anyone defend or attack the Mastodon record on these grounds.... hmmm.

Posted by Darby McDevitt | July 9, 2008 11:58 AM

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